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Mercury specialist Professor Donna Mergler discusses her new study on mercury poisoning in a First Nations community in Canada

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DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News Network from Toronto, Canada.

Grassy Narrows First Nation is an Ojibwa First Nation located 80 kilometres north of Kenora, Ontario, in Canada. It has a registered population of approximately 1500 people, of which the on-reserve population is 951. The lifeblood of Grassy Narrows First Nation is the Wabigoon River. Between 1962 and 1978, a paper mill then owned by Reed Paper, dumped ten tons of mercury into the Wabigoon. The residents were told by government officials that the river would clean itself naturally over time. However, as reported by The Toronto Star in November of last year, government officials knew in the 1990s that mercury was visible in soil under the paper mill upstream from Grassy Narrows First Nation, but the people there did not find out until 2017. For years, the residents of Grassy Narrows and scientists warned that mercury was poisoning the fish and the people who eat it, yet government officials repeatedly asserted that there was no ongoing source of mercury in the river. A new health survey commissioned by Grassy Narrows First Nation shows that decades after mercury was dumped into the river system, the physical and mental health of people there is significantly worse than that of other First Nations in Canada.

Now here to discuss this with us is the scientist who conducted the study, emeritus professor Donna Mergler. Professor Mergler is a mercury expert at the l’Universite du Quebec at Montreal, and she joins us today from Montreal, Canada. Thank you so much for joining us today.

DONNA MERGLER: You’re welcome. Nice to be here.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Prof. Mergler, please tell us broadly about the methodology of this study and its key findings.

DONNA MERGLER: OK. It was a community-based study where the community participated in all of the aspects of the study, and it was with both financial and technical support from provincial and federal ministries, Health Canada, notably, and Public Health Ontario. The survey was based on the First Nation regional health survey of 2008-2010, which provided us the means of being able to compare with other First Nations across Canada, and likewise, in Ontario, because the chiefs of Ontario had analyzed the Ontario data, which is in a publicly available report.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: In what respects was, did you find, or did the survey find, that the health of the Grassy Narrows First Nation members is worse than that of First Nations generally within Canada?

DONNA MERGLER: OK. Well, just before that, in addition to the similar questions is that we likewise asked questions about fish consumption and childhood fish consumption, fish consumption throughout life. So that we had questions of whether, was your father a fishing guide, which has been shown by Health Canada to, the fishing guides had high levels of mercury, and so did their families. We asked them how many fish they ate when they were 10 years old, because mercury exposure during childhood can be much more toxic because the child is in growth, can be more toxic than mercury exposure in adulthood. We also asked about current consumption of fish, and most notably walleye, which is the most-consumed fish in Grassy Narrows.

What we were able to do is with the, because we asked similar questions to the First Nation regional health survey, which was Canada-wide, is we were able to compare the prevalence of health conditions, the prevalence of socioeconomic conditions such as income, such as food security, between Grassy Narrows and other First Nation communities in Canada and in Ontario. And what we’ve found was that for many things the health of Grassy Narrows and their socioeconomic conditions were worse than that of other First Nations in Canada and in Ontario. For example, a measure that’s often used, that has been used both in the First Nation regional health survey and was likewise used in the, in the Canadian health serveys, is the question of how you perceive your health. And the answers are excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor. And there’s a measure called thriving, which is looking at how people rate their health as very good, or excellent. In Grassy Narrows they rate their-, 21 percent rate their health as very good and excellent. In Ontario, in First Nations in Ontario and in Canada, this is around 40 percent. And among non-indigenous Canadians this is 60 percent.

So that is used as a measure of overall health. It’s mirrored, as well, by chronic health conditions, and this one sees in many of the chronic health conditions Grassy Narrows-, people of Grassy Narrows report more chronic health conditions than those of other First Nations. That is true for when one’s looking at one chronic health condition, or more than four chronic health conditions. There is more in Grassy Narrows. And if one breaks it down by age category, you can likewise see that there is more per age category in Grassy Narrows, compared to other First Nations.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: What are some of the principal effects of mercury poisoning?

DONNA MERGLER: What we’re seeing-. We we divided the group into two, because you have those who are more than, who are 50 years of age and more, who were for the most part exposed prior to the arrival of mercury in the fish in the Grassy Narrows waters, and those who were under 50 years of age. Those who were over 50 years, I call them the survivors. There are fewer elders in Grassy compared to other First Nations, and half of them have been told by a health professional that they do have mercury poisoning.

Now, we looked at the younger people, that is, those under 50. We looked at symptoms that have been associated in the scientific literature with mercury exposure. That would be symptoms such as numbness in the hands and feet, dullness in the hands and feet, difficulty swallowing, choking. And we looked at clusters of these symptoms, because we know one can look at each symptom separately, which we did as well. But we likewise clustered the symptoms. And one of the clusters, for example, is peripheral neuropathy, which are sensory problems in the hands and feet, as an example. We also had motor problems, because-, and visual problems, because mercury is known to affect the motor system and the visual system. And what we saw that was in our statistical analyses is that it was highly related to having ate fish at least several times a week when you were 10 years old. And again, when we do these analyses, we take into account age, sex, drinking habits, having another chronic ill-, having a chronic illness.

So basically what we are saying is that people who are in the same condition, that is, the same age, the same drinking habits, the same sex, the same illnesses, have more symptoms of mercury exposure, mercury poisoning, if they had ate more fish when they were a child, compared to those who ate less fish. So that tells us about the association between childhood fish consumption and current health. This is also the case for some of these clusters of symptoms, of mercury-related symptoms, for people who are, who currently eat fish often. But the major finding is people who ate fish when, who ate a lot of fish when they were a child, are, have worse, have more symptoms. They’re also poorer, and more of them are suffering from food insecurity.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, this has been Dimitri Lascaris, speaking to Professor Mergler at the University of Quebec in Montreal about a new study relating to mercury contamination in the community of Grassy Narrows First Nation. Thank you very much for joining us today, professor.

DONNA MERGLER: Thank you. Goodbye.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News.

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Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a former board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at