Mercury hair concentrations and dietary exposure among Inuit preschool children in Nunavut, Canada.

Research paper by Wenjing W Tian, Grace M GM Egeland, Isaac I Sobol, Hing Man HM Chan

Indexed on: 03 Aug '10Published on: 03 Aug '10Published in: Environment International


There is concern that the traditional diet is a source of mercury exposure among Inuit in the Canadian Arctic. Mercury exposure in utero and in early childhood presents a risk to neurodevelopment. The objectives of the present study were to assess the dietary mercury exposure from traditional food among Inuit children 3 to 5 years of age in Nunavut, and evaluate the association between estimated dietary mercury intake and body burden. A cross-sectional Nunavut Inuit Child Health Survey was conducted in 2007 and 2008 which included assessment of dietary habits and children's hair mercury (Hg) levels. Further, an Inuit Adult Health Survey was conducted in the same years which included assessment of dietary habits and whole blood mercury concentrations. Traditional food samples were collected during this study and previously from the Canadian Arctic. Daily mercury intake from traditional food was calculated. Body mercury burden was determined using the hair mercury concentration. The geometric mean of children's hair Hg was 0.66 μg/g and varied by region. Nearly 25% of children had hair Hg concentrations equal to or higher than 2 μg/g (WHO reference level). There was a significant correlation between mercury levels in children's hair and that of the adults in the same household. For children, beluga muktuk, narwhal muktuk, ringed seal liver, fish, caribou meat and ringed seal meat were the major dietary sources of mercury. These food items together accounted for over 95% of total daily dietary mercury intake. A positive linear regression relationship between children's hair mercury levels and estimated dietary mercury intake was observed. Estimated intake in Baffin decreased by 30% compared to 20 years ago. Some traditional food items were significant sources of mercury to Inuit children in Nunavut. Although a reduction in the consumption of these diet items may be a way to reduce mercury intake, the nutritional, social and cultural benefits of traditional food and countervailing risks must be taken into account in risk mitigation.