Contaminant Biomonitoring in the Northwest Territories Mackenzie Valley: Investigating the Links Between Contaminant Exposure, Nutritional Status, and Country Food Use

Regions: Sahtu Settlement Area, Dehcho Region, South Slave Region

Tags: contaminants, mercury, social sciences, traditional food, nutrition

Principal Investigator: Laird, Brian D (7)
Licence Number: 15966
Organization: University of Waterloo
Licenced Year(s): 2017 2016 2015 2014
Issued: Sep 21, 2016
Project Team: Mylene Ratelle (Postdoctoral Fellow and Project Manager , University of Waterloo), Deborah Simmons (Collaborator, Sahtú Renewable Resources Board), George Low (Collaborator, Dehcho First Nations), Kelly Skinner (Assistant Professor, Nutrition and First Nations, University of Waterloo), Rhona Hanning (Professor, Nutrition and First Nations, University of Waterloo), Chris Furgal (Associate Professor, Risk communication and First Nations, Trent University), Shannon Majowicz (Assistant Professor, Nutrition, University of Waterloo), Ken Stark (Associate Professor, Nutrition and Biology, University of Waterloo), Heidi Swanson (Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Waterloo), Michael Power (Professor, Biology, University of Waterloo), Michèle Bouchard (Professor, Toxicology, University of Montreal), Amanda Boyd (Assistant Professor, Risk Communication and First Nations, Washington State University)

Objective(s): To promote country foods in a way that balances contaminant risks and nutrient benefits in order to maximize nutrient status while minimizing mercury exposure.

Project Description: The overall objective of this research is to promote country foods in a way that balances contaminant risks and nutrient benefits in order to maximize nutrient status while minimizing mercury exposure. The research team will work towards this objective through the implementation of research that will consist of the biomonitoring study to evaluate country food usage patterns, contaminant exposure profiles and nutritional biomarkers of participating communities. This will allow for the creation of a public health screening tool that will be used to characterize those most at risk of facing elevated contaminant exposures in the Mackenzie Valley.

The research team will travel to the Mackenzie Valley to continue the consultation process started in 2014. Every community in the Dehcho Region, Sahtu Region and in Hay River will be consulted during the 3 year project. Consultations happen through phone meetings with leaders, face-to-face meetings with the leadership and public meetings for community members. At fall 2016, the research team will travel again to implement sample and data collection in the communities accepting to participate (about 3 communities). Blood, urine and hair sampling began in the Jean Marie River community in January 2016. To facilitate the blood/urine/hair sampling, the team will coordinate with each band office for usage of space in each participating community for 2 to 4 days. The Dehcho Health and Social Services Authority, the Sahtu Health and Social Services Authority and the Hay River Public Health Department agreed to support this biomonitoring project (which will measure metals, organic pollutants, hair Hg, and nutritional biomarkers) by making nurses available for blood sample collection. In consultation with community partners, a local research coordinator will assist with participant recruitment. All community members over 6 years of age will be eligible to participate regardless of age, sex, family, parity status or other characteristics. Before participating in the project, each participant will be required to read an information letter before signing an informed consent. Importantly, each participant will be provided the choice to only take part in the project components in which they are interested. For example, one individual may choose to provide dietary information and hair but not provide blood.

In addition to blood, urine and hair sampling, each participant will be asked to complete two dietary surveys. For the first survey, participants will be asked to detail what they have eaten over the prior 24 hours. This 24-hr recall will also be used to generate the portion size information necessary to estimate nutrient and contaminant intakes for the second dietary survey, a Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQ). For the FFQ, participants will be asked to use an iPad app, QuickTapSurvey (, to document their country food use over the previous year.

The biological sample will be distributed to specific project members to undergo chemical analysis. Hair samples will undergo analysis for total mercury in the laboratory of the Department of Biology at the University of Waterloo. Blood and urine samples will be analyzed at the Université de Montréal in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health. Plasma samples will be analyzed at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec. Lastly, the fatty acid composition of whole blood will be determined in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo.

Participants will receive a letter with their individual results 6 to 10 months after providing samples. The research team will return to communities 9 to 12 months after data and sample collection to hold a public meeting to present the results. The team is currently creating a survey on Risk perception and messaging efficiency to support the development of efficient means to communicate the biomonitoring results and on country foods messages. Participants will be requested to complete a third survey. A Committee was created to assist with the messaging strategy, and involves local collaborators, scientists and government partners.

All documents the leadership recommends will be translated. The translator will assist according to the advice of the community and local partners. For public meetings, the rental of the hall and the support of a translator were included in the request for funding.

A local research coordinator will assist in each of the participating communities. These coordinators would assist with the implementation of the project by: overseeing participant recruitment and assist participants in completing the surveys. For the recruitment stage, the coordinators’ work would include: contacting potential participants, explaining the objectives of the study and obtaining informed consent. During the data collection stage, the coordinators’ work would include sampling of hair for chemical analysis, preparing samples for storage/shipment, and assisting participants in the completion of the electronic dietary surveys. Each coordinator will receive training on participant recruitment, hair sampling, dietary survey implementation of the questionnaire. Additionally, in each community, the research team hope for the assistance of a computer-savvy, local young person to help create a social media presence for the study. This individual could help ensure community members are aware of when the research team are arriving to do the research, when they are coming back to return results, and maintain contact with participants in between sample collection and the return of results.

This project will include a field portable mercury analyzer. This equipment will be useful within the chemical analysis plan for the biomonitoring project. Such a piece of equipment would facilitate exciting avenues for participatory research by enabling local community members to be trained in not only the collection of hair samples, but also the analysis of mercury content within those hair samples. The research team will design a training program by which community members can be trained on the measurement and interpretation of mercury levels in human hair.

Each study participant that provided a hair, urine and/or blood sample will receive by mail a confidential, plain-language letter detailing their contaminant exposure levels. The letters will compare their blood mercury, cadmium and lead levels to the average levels of other Canadian populations, and relevant biomonitoring trigger guidelines. The individual results follow-up letters will emphasise the general healthfulness and importance of country foods. In parallel with the individual reporting, the team will form a Committee to guide the knowledge translation of the community-level results via: a) the creation of plain-language community reports and b) hosting public forums in each participating community. These community-level reports would only include aggregate data and could not be used to identify the results of any one individual. Furthermore, in the last year, the research will aim to create a screening tool to identify individuals within the Northwest Territories who are most at risk of contaminant exposure.

The fieldwork for this study will be conducted from September 22, 2016 to December 23, 2016.