Northern Contaminants Program: The Next Steps
By Russ Shearer

The Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) was established in response to concern about human exposure to elevated levels of contaminants in wildlife species important to the traditional diets of northern Aboriginal peoples. A major component of phase I of the NCP (NCP-I) was to collect data to determine the levels, geographic extent, and source of contaminants in the Arctic and the probable duration of the problem.

 Research conducted under NCP-I included atmospheric monitoring, snow and water sampling, studies of transport and deposition processes for a variety of chemicals, extensive surveys of contaminant levels in a variety of wildlife species, measurements of human exposures, dietary studies, analysis of nutritional and other benefits of traditional diets, and preliminary studies on effects of contaminants. The data enabled us to understand the spatial patterns and temporal trends of contaminants in the Arctic, confirmed our suspicions that the major sources of contaminants were other countries, and were an important element in our assessment of human health risks resulting from contaminants in traditional foods (including consideration of benefits from continued consumption of those foods). 

Data generated through NCP-I are synthesized in the Canadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report (CACAR), a 460-page report that draws together all of the findings and identifies key knowledge gaps and future scientific priorities for research. The CACAR provided a starting point for extensive consultations conducted in 1997 to find the common elements between the concerns and priorities of northern communities and the scientific needs identified as critical for addressing the issue of contamination in Canada's Arctic. Aboriginal organizations, northern communities, contaminants researchers, programme managers, and other stakeholders throughout the North were involved in this consultation. 

In 1998, the NCP will conduct a second phase (NCP-II) to address immediate health and safety needs. A greater emphasis will be placed on research designed to answer questions about the impacts on human health that may result from current levels of contamination in key Arctic food species. Data from NCP-I will allow NCP-II to set priorities for future research based on the most important species for human exposure to contaminants, the level and type of contaminant exposures that are most relevant for Arctic humans, and geographic locations and target populations that are most at risk.  

NCP-II will emphasize research needed to better quantify risks to human health from current exposures to contaminants. To ensure a balanced assessment of the risks, importance will be placed on characterization and quantification of benefits associated with traditional diets. 

Communications activities will continue to evolve under NCP-II. Whereas the early years of NCP-I concentrated on building awareness, disseminating information, and creating an understanding of contaminants issues, the latter stages initiated a dialogue between northerners and the scientific community to help support the ability to deal with specific issues at the local level. Under the leadership of the northern Aboriginal organizations, NCP-II will continue to support this evolving approach to communications and education. 

Finally, the NCP effort to achieve international controls of contaminants will remain strong. During NCP-I, negotiation of a protocol on persistent organic pollutants (POPs), encompassing most of the northern hemisphere, was initiated and the process is expected to be complete in early 1998. 

As NCP-II begins, initiation of negotiations for a legally binding global instrument on POPs is slated to commence under the United Nations Environment Programme, and a new phase of the circumpolar Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme will get under way. NCP-II will continue to generate the data that allow Canada to play a leading role in these initiatives.

Russell Shearer is Environment Physical Scientist, Environment and Renewable Resources Directorate, Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.

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