Indigenous communities of the north rely on a traditional diet of foods from the land and ocean for their physical, cultural, and spiritual sustenance. Greens, berries, fish and land and marine mammals comprise eighty-percent of the diet of some Alaska Native peoples.

Contaminants from both local and global sources are having a significant impact on the safety of traditional subsistence foods in northern Alaska.

Persistent Organic Pollutants and Traditional Foods

Mungtak
Mungtak from St. Lawrence Island is sliced to share at a potluck. Bowhead Whale is one of the major marine mammal foods eaten by the St. Lawrence Island Yupik People. Photo by Samarys Seguinot

Persistent organic pollutants (or POPs) are industrial contaminants that remain intact in the environment, accumulate in living organisms (bioaccumulate) and are toxic to humans and wildlife. POPs include dangerous chemicals such as PCBs, DDT and dioxin.

Ocean and wind currents carry POPs from more southerly latitudes hundreds or even thousands of miles away to the circumpolar north where they enter the Arctic food web – into the soil and plants, insects, fish, wildlife and people.

The global transport of POPs to the Arctic means that contaminants that have never even been used in the region can be found in the fatty tissue of animals that live there.

Because the concentration of POPs gets higher as you move up the food web and humans are at the top of the Arctic marine food web, Alaska Native peoples and others living in the circumpolar north bear a disproportionate burden of environmental contaminants.

According to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme, some Arctic Indigenous populations have shown “levels of contaminants in blood and breast milk higher than those found anywhere else on the Earth.” Download report: Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in the Arctic. PDF icon

Local Hazardous Waste Sites and Traditional Foods

In addition to the contaminants brought to the Arctic via global transport, local hazardous waste sites from military and industrial operations may also contribute to the contamination of subsistence foods.

Health Benefits of Traditional Foods

Smoked Salmon
Photo by Antonio Huaiquivil

Traditional subsistence foods are extremely health protective and nutrient rich. They contain critical nutrients such as folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin D, iron and zinc. Traditional foods are also high in protein, fat (particularly omega-3 fatty acids) and antioxidants, and low in carbohydrates.

In contrast, store-bought, processed foods may have limited nutritional value and possibly also contain harmful chemicals such as pesticides, preservatives, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), and other substances that may be hazardous to health.

Research shows that changes in diet from traditional foods to highly processed foods may have adverse health implications, including an increase in diabetes and heart disease among people of the Arctic, as well as possible declines in mental health and well being.

Though a route of exposure, traditional foods remain the best source of sustenance for Alaska Native people as they are both nutritionally rich and culturally essential. Maintaining a traditional diet and engaging in the harvest of traditional foods is essential to the well-being of Indigenous peoples. We are working at the local, national and international levels to support initiatives to eliminate the use of chemicals known to accumulate in foods and to protect the Arctic from further contamination.

SLI Traditional Foods Sampling
ACAT environmental health researcher Morgan Apatiki of Gambell collects Yupik traditional food sample for analysis.

St. Lawrence Island Traditional Foods Study

At the request of the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska Community Action on Toxics is conducting a study to determine the safety of the traditional foods they eat for subsistence.