Mercury poisoning has devastated Grassy Narrows First Nation, new study shows

“The results verify what we have known and felt in our bodies all these years."
May 24, 2018, 7:59pm
Grassy  Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle is photographed after a press conference to unveil the new report on  Grassy  Narrows' mercury poisoning findings. Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

A new study led by Grassy Narrows residents and renowned mercury expert Donna Mergler has found that mercury contamination of fish from an environmental disaster 50 years ago has “gravely affected” the health and economic wellbeing of residents, especially elders, and that current programs don’t go far enough.

“The results verify what we have known and felt in our bodies all these years,” community leader Judy Da Silva said at a press conference Thursday. “We are a poisoned people, but we will continue to fight for mercury justice for our people and future generations.”

The study found that those who ate more than several fish a week as a child performed worse in school, and later reported lower income levels versus residents who didn’t consume as much. It also found there are fewer elders in the community, meaning they are dying prematurely and are less able to pass on traditional knowledge to younger generations. The report also says the percentage of people who reported suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts was “considerably higher” than for other First Nation communities.

In fact, the physical and mental health of Grassy Narrows residents is “considerably worse” than that of other First Nations in Ontario and Canada, the report says. As a result, its authors say the community needs additional resources for physical and mental health care, as well as programs to compensate for economic loss.

"There is an urgent need to improve care for persons with mercury poisoning."

“There is an urgent need to improve care for persons with mercury poisoning,” the study recommends. “There is a clear need for a long-term care facility in Grassy Narrows for those who can no longer care for themselves.”

The findings matter as the Ontario election heats up. The Liberal government has faced criticism for dragging its feet in addressing decades of mercury poisoning in the community.

In the 1960s, a paper mill dumped mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system, contaminating the river sediment at least 250 kilometres downstream. That mercury was absorbed into the food chain, where it accumulated in high levels in prized fish including walleye, which are still eaten by Grassy Narrows residents, and residents of other First Nations along the river. Mercury is a neurotoxin that is known to cause birth defects, learning disabilities, numbness in the feet and hands, and anxiety and depression.

The province previously took the position that the mercury would naturally flush out of the river sediment if given long enough. Later, the province committed to cleaning up the river, but when the budget came out, there was no money for the cleanup. Last June, the Liberals committed $85 million toward the cleanup.

The study, conducted by community members in partnership with a mercury expert, and the first of its kind in Grassy Narrows, had the goal of better understanding residents’ health, 50 years after the community and others on the English-Wabigoon river system say they experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history.

The study, funded by Health Canada and Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, questioned adults 18 to 80 living on reserve using an online survey adapted from the First Nations Regional Health Survey, so the results could be compared to other First Nations. A field team also visited 80 percent of the homes in Grassy Narrows, surveying 322 adults. They also surveyed another 101 adults living off reserve.

People who said their father was a fishing guide, and that they had themself eaten fish several times a week or more as a child had an average of four times the amount of mercury in their umbilical cord blood compared to those who answered no to both those questions.

Elders had higher exposures to mercury, the study found. Over half of people over 50 years of age had been told by a health professional that they had mercury poisoning. The report says those who were diagnosed said they couldn’t work because of poor health or disability, resulting in lower incomes.

For people under 50, those who consumed more than several fish a week as a child performed more poorly in school compared to others, the study found. “This translates into earning capacity: more band members who ate fish several times a week as a child report an annual income of under $20,000, compared to those who ate less fish.”

According to the report, sediment core analysis shows mercury concentration in the river increased abruptly after 1961, peaked at 1968, declined slightly until 1974 and then dropped off rapidly until 1986, where it has tailed off, “but remained an order of magnitude higher” than pre-pollution levels. That pattern reflected in how residents reported fish consumption. Older people were more likely to have a father who was a fishing guide, and ate more fish when they were children.

Today, mercury levels in the fish remain high on Grassy Narrows territory, and the highest levels are in prized walleye and northern pike. A third of Grassy Narrows members reported they often ate walleye over the past year.