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First Nations up in arms over mercury related health conditions among kids.


In the following article, Kate Harries documents her search for information about mercury poisoning in two Ontario First Nation communities.

How many stillbirths are there in a year at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations?

How many children have symptoms - seizures, developmental delays, failure to thrive, poor coordination, lack of memory - that could be mercury-related in the two Northwestern Ontario communities that were devastated by mercury dumped into the English Wabigoon River system a half century ago.

Sherry Fobister's 9-year-old daughter Catherine has those symptoms and many more. "They always say there's one in 10,000 births where it happens to kids, it's like a lottery, which kid gets it. And they don't know what causes it."

What causes it is important to Fobister. The lack of clarity means that the Mercury Disability Board (which provides a monthly payment to the child that goes to Indian Affairs Canada to be held in trust until she turns 18) doesn't cover many of the costs associated with taking Catherine to Winnipeg, where the specialists are.

The questions arise because people in the communities fear they continue to see the effects of mercury in their children, two generations later.

Health Canada is funding a study of environmental contaminants by biologist Leanne Simpson, who adds that a study of health effects has been discussed but doesn't fit into Health Canada's funding parameters.

Of course there are no simple answers.

In fact, when it comes to the aftermath of one of the worst industrial poisonings in Canada's history, Health Canada doesn't so much give answers as clues.

What statistical evidence is there of mercury related symptoms in Grassy Narrows? In one of a series of written answers, media relations official Paul Spendlove referred to a study Health Canada funded in 2004. "The report is the property of the First Nation and further questions about the report should be addressed to the community," Spendlove wrote.

The study, by Laurie Chan of McGill University, is an examination of mercury contamination in the fish eaten by residents of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong, so it's not designed to answer questions about still births and symptoms. But Chan tested the hair of 142 residents of the two communities. Two from Grassy Narrows and four from Wabaseemoong had mercury concentrations exceeding Health Canada's "acceptable" level of 6 mg/kg, but all were under the "at risk" level of 30 ppm.

"These results show that there should be minimal concern for Hg (mercury) in these two communities," the report stated.

In 2002, Dr. Masazumi Harada, a Japanese neuropsychiatrist and internationally recognized expert on the effects of mercury poisoning, tested hair samples from 47 Grassy Narrows residents and did medical examination of 57.

Harada diagnosed 45 cases of Minimata disease (mercury poisoning), using standard criteria that require, at minimum, sensory impairment of the extremities or around the mouth, plus one or more symptoms such as disturbed gait, tremors and impaired hearing or speech.

In a paper published in 2005 in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Harada noted that the symptoms were conclusive though mercury in hair levels were low.

Canada has never admitted that Minimata disease occurred in Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong.

Harada said his findings show that "chronic Minimata disease can occur due to long-term mercury poisoning even though the level (in hair) is not above the recommended safe level." He recommended further study and more resources for residents struggling with the effects.

Spendlove's comment does not deal with the new theory about the value of hair testing. The Chan report, he wrote, "was based on a much larger sampling than Dr. Harada's study. No evidence of Minamata disease was reported; however, diagnosis was made difficult for several reasons: factors such as poor nutritional statu[TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] alcoholism, old age, diabetes, and other neurological disorders may produce similar findings."

On the issue of statistics for stillbirths and miscarriages at Grassy Narrows, Spendlove wrote: "Data about stillbirths are available from the provincial vital statistic registry. Data about hospitalized miscarriages are available from the Canadian Institutes of Health Information's Hospital Morbidity Data Base."

A few calls directed Windspeaker to Canada's Public Health Agency, and media relations spokersperson Philip Brideau advised suggested the Ontario health [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] might have more information.

Another question: How many people are receiving compensation from the Mercury Disability Board, how old are they and what level of mercury-related disability have they been assessed for?

Turns out Health Canada doesn't have that statistic either. Spendlove refers me to the board.

Many people on the reserve talk about difficulty [TEXT UNREADABLE IN ORIGINAL SOURCE.] getting in touch with the board, which has number that is staffed between 7:30-8:30 a.m. Monday--Thursday, and 7:30 a.m. -3:30 p.m. on Fridays.

I make contact once, with an assistant who told me that board chair Margaret Cameron would call me back And that's the last I heard, despite two weeks of leaving messages.

Fobister has had the same experience. She wants to appeal the level of compensation her daughter gets because the initial payment was based on the situation at age 3. Six yars later, there's a lot more information on the child's condition. But getting a form and information about how to appeal has stymied her. And now she has another worry. Her son, one year old, started having seizures a few months ago and shows signs of the same condition as her daughter.

She was shocked when it happened. She thought he might be alright because, after all, the doctors is Winnipeg told her how rare her daughter's condition is "Like they said, it's only one in 10,000."

So the questions remain. How many children like Catherine are there on those reserves? Does anyone is government want to know?

By Kate Harries

Windspeaker Writer
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Author:Harries, Kate
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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