Human Exposure Monitoring and Evaluation in the Arctic: The Importance of Understanding Exposures to the Development of Public Health Policy

By Suk, William A.; Avakian, Maureen D. et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Human Exposure Monitoring and Evaluation in the Arctic: The Importance of Understanding Exposures to the Development of Public Health Policy


Suk, William A., Avakian, Maureen D., Carpenter, David, Groopman, John D., Scammell, Madeleine, Wild, Christopher P., Environmental Health Perspectives


Arctic indigenous peoples face significant challenges resulting from the contamination of Arctic air, water, and soil by persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and radionuclides. International cooperative efforts among governments and research institutions are under way to collect the information needed by environmental health scientists and public health officials to address environmental contamination in the Arctic. However, the climatic, political, and cultural conditions of the land and its native populations combine to present a unique set of scientific and logistic challenges to addressing this important public health issue. Public health officials have the responsibility to respect the cultural traditions of indigenous communities, while simultaneously designing strategies that will reduce their exposure to environmental contaminants and rotes of disease and dysfunction. Researchers can better understand the link between environmental exposures and disease through monitoring programs for both the subsistence diets and health status of the indigenous populations. We suggest that the incorporation of community-based participatory research methods into programs designed to assess biomarkers of contaminant exposure in children and adults may be a valuable addition to ongoing and newly developed research programs. This approach could serve as a model for international environmental health initiatives, because it involves the participation of the local communities and seeks to builds trust between all stakeholders. Key words: Arctic, biomarker, community-based participatory research.

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The Arctic is home to many indigenous populations that face significant challenges to their health resulting from the contamination of Arctic air, water, and land. Unique obstacles introduced by climatic, political, and cultural aspects of the land and its native populations have made it difficult to assess the true extent of environmental contamination and exposure in the region and address them through the design and application of appropriate research programs and prevention strategies. However, this highly vulnerable population can be protected through the most modern research tools available and community participation.

In this article we flame the various problems and opportunities presented by the climate and culture of the Arctic and its peoples; briefly review research initiatives and international collaborations that address environmental contamination in the region; and recommend pathways to develop and implement a research-and-prevention strategy that considers both the needs of the research community and the desires and concerns of the native populations that the research seeks to observe and understand.

The approach recommended here focuses on the development of research programs designed to assess biomarkers of exposure and susceptibility and monitor the diet and health of native Artic populations within the context of carefully designed community-based participatory research programs. We discuss a specific process for developing and executing a region-wide monitoring program that could serve as a model for international environmental health initiatives worldwide.

Framing the Issue: Arctic Geography and Native Populations

There are many definitions of the Arctic, variously based on climatic, physical, geographic, or political criteria. For research purposes, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) describes the Arctic as the area north of 60[degrees] north latitude, including Alaska north of the panhandle, Canada north of the southern shore of Hudson Bay, all of Greenland and Iceland, and the northern reaches of Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Russia (AMAP 2002a). In addition to these land masses, the Arctic encompasses approximately 20 million [km.sup.2] of ocean. The perennial ice pack covers about 8 million [km.sup.2] of the Arctic Ocean; nearly 15 million [km. …

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