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Levels of ‘forever chemical’ twice as high in northerners

Last modified: June 29, 2021 at 10:44am


Scientists have discovered levels of a long-lasting man-made contaminant are twice as high among people living in northern communities compared to Canada’s general population.

The new study from researchers with the University of Waterloo looked at levels of a group of chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – or PFAS – in blood samples from adults living in Old Crow, Yukon, and the Dehcho region of the NWT between 2016 and 2019. 

While scientists found levels of most PFAS among northerners were similar to or lower than those found in the general Canadian population and other First Nations communities, there was one exception. Concentrations of perfluorononanoic acid, also known as PFNA or C9 carboxylic acid, were twice as high among northerners – approximately 1.8 times higher in Old Crow and 2.8 times higher in the Dehcho. 

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“PFAS may be traveling through the ocean or the atmosphere and then accumulating in traditional foods,” Joshua Garcia-Barrios, a student at the university and lead author of the study told Cabin Radio. 

“The fact that we are finding PFNA at higher levels compared to southern populations may suggest that long-range transport in the Arctic of PFAS could lead to higher accumulation of PFNAs.” 

PFAS are a family of more than 4,7000 chemicals known for their ability to repel water and oil that can be found in firefighting foams, waterproof clothing, cosmetics and food packaging. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade in the environment and can remain in the human body for years. PFAS are in the blood of almost every person on Earth, even unborn babies. 

Joshua Garcia-Barrios was among the research team that recently shared the study results in Old Crow, Yukon. Photo: Joshua Garcia-Barrios

Research has shown that levels of some PFAS are on the rise in parts of the Arctic. They have been found in Arctic lakes, fish, seabirds, whales, ringed seals, and at particularly high levels in polar bears. 

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Garcia-Barrios noted that due to the limited data on PFAS in humans in the North, it’s unclear if concentrations have decreased or increased among people over time.

The study did show, however, that concentrations of PFAS were higher in men than women, and they increased with age.  

“Because they are newer chemicals, we are learning more about them every year. But there might be some specific biological mechanisms that might make women eliminate these PFAS quicker than males,” Garcia-Barrios said.

He added that as PFAS can accumulate in the body over time, that may explain the increased exposure over time. 

PFAS have been linked with low infant birth weights, cancer, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, early menopause, and other health problems. Garcia-Barrios said it’s currently unclear whether the levels of PFAS discovered in this study are high enough to be associated with health impacts. 

“The one thing that we do know is that the benefits of traditional foods generally outweigh the risks from contaminants,” he said. “Traditional foods are healthy and generally the risks are pretty low.” 

A polar bear in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region
A polar bear in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. Steven Baryluk/GNWT

Garcia-Barrios said research on PFAS is ongoing and researchers hope to continue working with northern communities to learn more. He noted the study stemmed from community interest and participation was voluntary. 

“It does have interesting implications about the importance of continued monitoring and regulation of these substances, not only on a local level, such as in Canada, but also globally,” he said. “It brings awareness that there should be an effort in many ways to regulate these kinds of substances.”

In Canada, certain types of PFAS are prohibited (PFOS, PFOA and LC-PFCAS). The federal government is looking into whether PFAS that have replaced those prohibited chemicals are also associated with environmental or health effects. It has committed to publish a report on PFAS within the next two years and is currently collecting information to inform a class approach on the chemical group. 

In the United States, the senate plans to introduce a bill banning PFAS in cosmetics, after researchers recently found the forever chemicals in more than half of North American makeup products they tested. Some states have banned the chemicals in food packaging, firefighting foams and other consumer products while some have set regulations capping the levels allowed in drinking water. The state of New Jersey, for example, passed regulations capping the amount of PFNA permitted in drinking water in September 2018 and last year, the state of California passed a bill banning PFNA as an intentionally added ingredient in cosmetics. 

Internationally, Denmark banned PFAS in food packaging in 2020 and fast food chain McDonald’s has said they plan to ban PFAS from guest food packaging materials globally by 2025.

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