English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 8, 2001

RAIPON initiates research on Arctic pollution and its impact on indigenous health

L.I. Abryutina

The project "Persistent toxic substances, food security and indigenous peoples of the Russian North" was launched in four Arctic regions of Russia: Murmansk Oblast, and Nenets, Taymyr and Chukotka autonomous okrugs. The project will run for the next three years under the guidance of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) in cooperation with RAIPON and with funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). Researchers of the North-Western Research Centre for Hygiene and Public Health, the Regional Arctic Monitoring Centre, medical experts and regional employees of the Sanitary Control Authority take part in the project implementation. Dr Larisa Abryutina, RAIPON's Vice-President on Health Issues, is the project coordinator. Her regional deputies work in the field. Most of them belong to the medical profession; their participation was established in cooperation with the indigenous organisations locally, where the medical and environmental activities take place.

The project is clearly needed. Intensive industrial and agricultural development involving the wide use of various chemical substances inevitably results in global environmental pollution. Pollution is especially hazardous in the North as chemicals and waste enter the northern environment from local plants as well as from the South. It is almost a mystery how South African chemicals against malaria mosquito get into our seas, and hence, into the fish, the walrus and other animals. Weed-killers and pesticides used in the South arrive here as well. They poison us, the Northerners. Why? Because these chemical substances are very persistent and accumulate well in the Northern water, in the flora and the fauna, for example, in adipose cells. Once inside, some substances do not disintegrate or disappear. They slowly poison the body and cause sicknesses, sometimes very serious ones. Those who consume traditional Northern food suffer most, as well as infants who risk getting a "dose of poison" with breast milk. The Northern environment is likely to turn from the world's purest into the most dangerous.

Therefore the aim of the project is to study contents of the persistent chemical pollutants in humans and in the environment. Together with the local doctors and local assistants, researchers collect samples of blood, breast milk, soil, fish, reindeer meat and berries. Simultaneously, the population is studied through questionnaires.

If the scientists detect the presence of persistent chemical pollutants in the environment and the people, the second phase of the project will identify the origin of the pollution and will formulate appropriate actions to mitigate the problems.

The research takes place in the settlements of Lovozero and Krasnoshchelye of the Murmansk Oblast; in the settlements of Nelmin-Nos and Indira of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug; in the town of Dudinka and the settlements of Khatanga, Novorybnoe and Kheta in Taymyr; and in the settlements of Lavrentiya, Uelen and Kanchalan in Chukotka.

The RAIPON coordinator, together with colleagues from St. Petersburg, visited all these settlements and met with local authorities, and local indigenous associations, regional public health and sanitary control authorities. They had a number of meetings with the inhabitants of these settlements where the purpose and tasks of this project were discussed in questions-and-answer sessions. The meetings were broadcasted on radio and TV – they attracted a lot of media attention.

The author believes that this project is very relevant since we need to know the level of pollution in the Russian Arctic. The project will also allow us to identify ways to overcome environmental problems. Similar research projects have taken place in Alaska, Canada, Norway – in all Arctic countries except Russia. We have to do it as well. The first field work was done by four groups of scientists and doctors this summer. Dr V.P. Chashin, the Head of the North-Western Research Centre for Hygiene and Public Health, coordinated it with Mr V. Kimstach, the AMAP Project Coordinator.

Further details on this work will be provided in the report to the environmental conference in Tromsø, Norway, in January 2002.

The task of the RAIPON coordinator is to present the indigenous interest in this project. To do this, the coordinator must help the researchers in identifying the most urgent issues, provide logistical support through a network of regional assistants, members of RAIPON. Meeting people helps to identify imminent problems. Further, logistical issues are solved at these meetings, and the people are given a chance to understand the importance of this research. Meetings help to establish "bridges" between researchers and the local population.

One of the most important results of the project, besides research on environmental hazards in the Arctic, will be the establishment of partner relationships between indigenous communities of the North and researchers. This is one of the goals set by the ethnic policy of the government. We hope that all project tasks will be successfully accomplished.