‘An environmental injustice’: Study finds exposure to certain organic pollutants on the rise in pregnant Inuit women

Nunavik, Quebec
An Inuit hunter near Quaqtaq in Nunavik, Quebec. A new study finds that exposure to certain chemical compounds is on the rise among pregnant Inuit women (iStock photo by StphaneLemire)

Don Campbell

Pregnant women living in Nunavik are increasingly being exposed to potentially harmful chemical compounds that are commonly found in consumer products.


This is one of the findings of new study by a group of Canadian researchers including Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, an assistant professor in the department of health and society and the department of physical & environmental sciences at U of T Scarborough.


“It’s an environmental injustice because people’s food in the Arctic is being contaminated by chemicals made far away from their homes,” says Caron-Beaudoin, an expert on toxicology as well as public and environmental health.


Perfluroalkyl acids (PFAAs) which are used in a wide range of consumer products including non-stick coatings for cooking ware, water and stain repellents, food packaging, paints, cosmetics and cleaning products.


PFAAs do not biodegrade easily, and as a result, can persist for a long time in the environment. They can also be carried over long distances in the atmosphere and in oceans, where they accumulate in the tissues of living organisms in the Arctic food chain, says Caron-Beaudoin.


Elyse Caron-Beaudoin
Assistant Professor Élyse Caron-Beaudoin is an expert on toxicology as well as public and environmental health (Submitted Photo)


She says that exposure to these compounds, including during fetal development, is associated with changes in hormonal, kidney, cardio-metabolic and immune function.


The study, published in the journal Environment International, involved measuring changes in the concentration of PFAAs in the blood of 279 pregnant women living in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec from 2004 to 2017. The researchers found that PFAA concentrations in pregnant Inuit women were twice as high as those in a representative sample of Canadian women.


They also found that one of the likely source of PFAAs concentrations in the blood is from the consumption of country foods, particularly marine wildlife.


Caron-Beaudoin says that many living in the north experience food insecurity and rely on the nutritional and cultural value provided by country foods, which makes up the traditional Inuit diet.


“The benefit of consuming traditional foods still outweigh the negatives,” she says “We need adequate regulations that protect these country foods from harmful contaminants because these communities rely on them, especially pregnant women who need the nutritional value.”  


While most of PFAAs are regulated in North America, they do get imported by consumer products containing them. The researchers found there’s actually been a drop in concentrations of legacy PFAAs – those banned by various International and North American treaties – but found that concentrations of long-chain PFAAs, which are more recent and can come from the degradation of other currently-used similar compounds such as FTOHs, are on the rise.


“These long-chain PFAAs are even more persistent and have an even greater potential to accumulate in the food chain than the older PFAAs,” says Caron-Beaudoin.   


Caron-Beaudoin says compounds like FTOHs can not only travel long distances from their site of production, they also travel in consumer and industrial products that get imported into North America.


“It’s important to stay on top of this and make sure these new chemical compounds are tightly regulated as well,” she says.