Getting the lead out

Inuit women work together to stop pollution

Date published: 2006-04-12 2:27:32 PM

Toxic chemicals and pollutants threaten the once-pristine Arctic environment. For the Inuit, these contaminants are a danger not only to their land, but to their health, culture and traditional way of life.

For Inuit women, it is a call to action.

“Environmental contaminants often hit women the hardest,” says Joanna Kafarowski, a doctoral student in natural resources and environmental studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.

“In addition to the harm done to their own health, Inuit women bear the burden of knowing they pass these toxic chemicals on to their babies in the womb and through their breast milk.”

With the help of a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship, Kafarowski has been studying how Inuit women, who have traditionally been responsible for maintaining the health of their families, have become leaders in the fight against pollution.

But, this is not a straightforward battle. Most of the population’s exposure to toxic pollution comes from traditional “country foods” that not only have been the mainstay of Inuit diets for centuries, but hold enormous cultural and spiritual significance.

“When contaminants first started to be identified, people were told to stop eating their traditional foods,” says Kafarowski. “But this solution created a whole new set of problems for the cultural health of Inuit communities.”

When Inuit women are involved, however, Kafarowski says they help find solutions that protect both their community’s health and their culture.

For example, when people in the northern Québec village of Inukjuak began to show high levels of lead in their blood, the source of the contaminant was identified as the lead shot used to hunt game fowl. Rather than stopping people from hunting, the women of the community began working to convince hunters and storeowners to use non-toxic steel bullets instead.

“The work of these women at the household and community level is making a huge difference,” says Kafarowski. “Not only are they working hard to remove a toxic contaminant from the environment and improve the health of their community, but they are also protecting their culture and traditional way of life.”

Joanna Kafarowski’s research on Inuit women’s responses to pollution is funded through SSHRC’s Doctoral Awards program.