Grassy Narrows: New report strongest evidence yet of mercury poisoning

Grave health impacts linked to fish from poisoned river
A new health report by a renowned Canadian mercury expert provides the strongest evidence yet of mercury poisoning in this northern Ontario Indigenous community.  The community health survey finds that health and wellbeing in Grassy Narrows is significantly worse than in other First Nations and links fish eating to a wide range of grave impacts.  The government has yet to acknowledge even one case of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, which is located downstream from the Dryden mill, one of Canada’s most notorious toxic dumping sites.  This is the first study of its kind in Grassy Narrows, and the most comprehensive assessment of the health of the community to date.
“Our survey confirms what leaders of Grassy Narrows have been saying for decades,” said renowned environmental health scientist and lead author Dr. Donna Mergler.  “There are long term effects on health and well-being of eating the fish from Grassy Narrows lakes and rivers.”
The expert report concludes that the “[c]urrent health and social services programs are inadequate in addressing many of the issues concerning the health and well-being in the [Grassy Narrows] community. (p.45) “There is an urgent need to improve care for persons with mercury poisoning, taking into account co-morbidity, loss of livelihood and loss of mobility.” (p.40) The report also recommends improved programs for food security, cultural revival, and mental health.
“How long will it take before the government finally admits that our people have been poisoned by mercury and takes responsibility to heal our people, our culture, and our economy from this disaster,” said Chief Rudy Turtle.  “I call on all parties to commit immediately to implement Dr. Mergler’s recommendations and to compensate all of our people for their suffering.”
Elders remember that in the days before the mercury contamination, Grassy Narrows was a thriving community with a rich culture and near full employment as fishers.  Grassy Narrows people have been fighting for decades for justice and to rebuild the prosperity that they once enjoyed.  Too often their efforts have been met with denial and racism.
The report finds that people in Grassy Narrows generally suffer from worse health, more severe food insecurity, and more suicidal tendencies than other First Nations, and far more than non-Native people in Canada.  Adults under 50 who had eaten more fish as children experience worse health, lower education success, and more poverty, compared to those who ate less fish.   
“The results verify what we have known and felt in our bodies all these years,” said Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows mother and grandmother.  “We are a poisoned people, but we will continue to fight for mercury justice for our people and future generations.”
People who reported being diagnosed by a medical professional with mercury poisoning were:
–              5 times more likely to have four or more other chronic health conditions
–              5 times more likely to have a neuropsychological disorder
–              3 times more likely to have blindness of vision problems not corrected by glasses
–              5 times more likely to have stomach and intestinal problems
–              5 times more likely to have allergies.
–              4 times more likely to have hearing impairment, high cholesterol and rheumatism (joint pain) in people over 30. (p.17,18)
The likelihood of reporting mercury poisoning is 5 times higher among those whose father was a fishing  guide. (p.134)
A Government of Canada briefing note obtained through a Freedom of Information request stated that “According to Health Canada, and their review of the health and mercury related data accumulated over the past 45 years, there is no data to confirm whether there is a greater rate of disability or significant health problems, in comparison to other First Nations, in either Grassy Narrows or [another nearby First Nation] at this time.”
“This report should shock and anger all people in Canada,” said Craig Benjamin of Amnesty International Canada.  “The federal and provincial governments clearly could and should have acknowledged and addressed this mercury health crisis decades ago.  It is now their responsibility to finally set things right.”
Alarmingly the report exposes extremely high rates of suicidal tendencies in Grassy Narrows, far higher than in other First Nations.  33% of participants in Grassy Narrows have lost a close friend or family member to suicide, nearly five times the rate documented in other Ontario First Nations (7%).  28% had attempted suicide, more than double the rate of other First Nations (13%).  (p.30)  Many of the risk factors (ill health, low school success, food insecurity, financial insecurity, disability and chronic health conditions) are associated with mercury poisoning and/or higher fish consumption as a child.  (p.43)
The report authors write that the results clearly indicate that current mental health and suicide programs are insufficient to reduce suicide and improve mental health.  (p.44)
The  results  of  the  survey  likewise  show  that  despite  their  physical  and  mental health  challenges,  ANA  community  members  endeavour  to  maintain  and  improve their health and wellbeing both individually and collectively.   (p.10)
While earlier studies have looked at symptoms of Minamata Disease in Grassy Narrows individuals, and others have looked at mercury exposure, no previous study in Grassy Narrows has looked at this full range of health and well-being in comparison to other First Nations and in relation to fish consumption.  With a very high participation rate, and renowned authors including Dr. Mergler, professor emerita at the Université du Québec à Montréal, this study provides the most authoritative evidence yet of the impacts on the Grassy Narrows community of fish consumption from their poisoned river.
A second part of the study examined the health and well-being of children.  Those results are pending and will released at a later date following their presentation in Grassy Narrows.
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