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Mercury contamination: four women share Scientist of the Year title | Radio-Canada's scientists of the year

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Jan28,2024

Donna Mergler, Judy Da Silva, Aline Philibert and Myriam Fillion observed the ravages of mercury in the Anishinabek community of Grassy Narrows.

Mercury contamination: four women share the title of Scientist of the Year | The Radio-Canada Scientists of the Year

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Aerial view of the Indigenous community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario

Radio-Canada

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The 2023 Radio-Canada Scientist of the Year award recognizes the exceptional work accomplished by four women: Donna Mergler, Judy Da Silva, Aline Philibert and Myriam Fillion. They have worked for years to scientifically document the long-term impacts of mercury poisoning suffered by the Indigenous community of Grassy Narrows, Ontario.

It's a landscape of forests, lakes and rivers. Magnificent, but contaminated bodies of water. Mercury.

The events date back more than 50 years. Between 1962 and 1970, a pulp and paper company located in Dryden, in northwestern Ontario, released 10 tonnes of mercury into the water. This resulted in contamination of the Wabigoon and English rivers for more than a hundred kilometers, downstream from the plant, to the indigenous community of Grassy Narrows.

Mercury was imposed on these people, they asked for nothing. They are sick, their children are sick, their grandchildren are sick. Mercury accumulates in the brain. We can't remove it.

A quote from Aline Philibert, epidemiologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal

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Aline Philibert is an epidemiologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

The lives of the members of this Anishinabek community were suddenly transformed.

Residents who lived by fishing and eating their catch lost both their livelihoods and their health. Mercury, transformed by bacteria into methylmercury, its most toxic form, accumulated in the flesh of fish. Those who fed on it had serious health problems.

Although the level of mercury in waterways has since decreased When it stabilized in the mid-1980s, the contaminant did not disappear. As a result, Grassy Narrows residents have sharply reduced their fish consumption.

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The community had to reduce their fish consumption due to mercury contamination.

As for the health problems associated with their high exposure to mercury during the 1960s, they are still felt today.

The residents of Grassy Narrows have been fighting for decades for recognition not only of the ravages of this contamination on their health but also of the importance of obtaining specialized care.

A report by André Bernard and Yanick Rose on the awarding of the Scientist of the Year2023 award to Donna Mergler, Judy Da > Silva, Aline Philibert and Myriam Fillion will be presented on the show Découverte, broadcast Sunday at 6 h 30 on HERE TELE and at 10h on HEREExplora, as well as Saturday at 7 h 30 on HERE RDI.

Judy Da Silva, the environmental health coordinator for the Grassy Narrows community, says that the road has been long but that a new path opened in 2016 during the meeting with researcher Donna Mergler.

One of the things Judy understood was the importance of documenting, in a scientific way, what is happening to her community in order to find ways to improve the situation.

A quote from Donna Mergler, professor emeritus and neurophysiologist at the University of Quebec at Montreal

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Donna Mergler is professor emeritus and neurophysiologist at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

Donna Mergler and her colleagues Aline Philibert and Myriam Fillion, professor of environmental health at TÉLUQ University, formed a quartet with Judy Da Silva dedicated to a large epidemiological study among residents of Grassy Narrows. Over the years, they have subjected community members to series of tests to assess their neurological, cognitive and psychological problems.

One of the first effects of mercury, says Donna Mergler, is the loss of sensation in the extremities of the limbs, in the fingers and in the feet. There was a link between fish consumption and loss of sensitivity, she said.

Researchers also looked at peripheral vision problems , loss of motor coordination and early mortality.

After careful examination of historical data on population contamination rates, they established that the probability of exceeding the 60-year mark decreased with increasing exposure to the contaminant. Judy Da Silva also confirms the absence of very elderly people in her community.

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Judy Da Silva is the Environmental Health Coordinator for the Grassy Narrows Community.

The repercussions of exposure to methylmercury are also felt on a social level, and have been for a long time, adds epidemiologist Aline Philibert. Indeed, as early as the 1970s, scientists observed a high number of suicides among young people.

This grim trend persists 50 years later: the number of suicide attempts is two to three times higher in Grassy Narrows than in other Indigenous communities across the country, where suicide rates are already higher than the national rate.< /p>

At the request of Grassy Narrows residents, Donna Mergler and her colleagues took a closer look at this issue.

In 2023, they published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectivesa three-generation study (New window) suggests a link between methylmercury exposure, emotional problems and suicide attempts among young people, especially when both mother and child are involved. been exposed during pregnancy.

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Myriam Fillion is a professor of environmental health at TÉLUQ University.

The mother's consumption of contaminated fish then exposes the fetus to methylmercury. The unborn child can thus be exposed to mercury levels almost twice as high as in maternal blood.

We know that poisoning Methylmercury can lead to psychological distress in a person. But we also know that socioeconomic factors can lead to a suicide attempt.

For the researchers, the challenge was to determine the contribution of methylmercury to these events using statistical methods and analyses. Aline Philibert insists: here, it is not a question of a cause and effect relationship but rather of a notable contribution of methylmercury to suicide attempts.

We try to share this information with young people so that they understand that their feelings of distress are legitimate. "Give us some time and we'll help you" : this is the message of hope that we are trying to give them.

A quote from Judy Da Silva, environmental health coordinator for the community of Grassy Narrows

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Aline Philibert and Donna Mergler carry out their work with the residents of Grassy Narrows.

Whether for physical or psychological care, the residents of Grassy Narrows are counting on the contribution of this new scientific data to move things forward.

Our studies, I hope, will provide a better understanding of what is happening with mercury poisoning [not only] in order to obtain better diagnostic tools but also to improve the management of these health problems. health.

A quote from Myriam Fillion, professor of environmental health

The federal government has been promising the creation of a health center for several years specialists within the Grassy Narrows community. Its construction should begin next fall.

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Aerial view of the indigenous community of Grassy Narrows.

Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my natasha@thetimeshub.in 1-800-268-7116

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