In many Arctic regions, hazardous substances from local or (mostly) far-away sources are found at levels that may threaten the health of both humans and the environment.
The reindeer that wander around the Norwegian–Finnish–Russian border provide meat that can be eaten locally or sold to bring cash into the border communities. Photo: Geir Rudolfsen / Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority.
By: Torkjel Sandanger, UiT The Arctic University of Norway, and NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research. Eldbjørg Heimstad, NILU – Norwegian Institute for Air Research
We have studied the impact of local industry on food safety and human health at the northern end of the Scandinavian peninsula.
In the region around the borders between Norway, Finland, and Russia, local industrial activities associated with natural resource extraction have been a substantial source of local pollution. Although there is concern about the long-term consequences of this pollution, the industrial activities also provide jobs and economic benefits to local communities. To date there has been a lack of cross-border data on contaminants in the local foods collected from nature and their impact on human health. Likewise, little has been known about what shapes the local populations’ food security concerns and what impact those concerns have on behaviour and policies.
The main objective of our project was to assess the impact of industry on food safety and human health in this High North border area. To this end, we investigated concentrations of contaminants in local food and in pregnant women, and conducted questionnaire surveys to study how the region’s inhabitants perceived potential risks.
Contaminants in food
More than 200 food samples were collected from Norway, Russia and Finland. The local foods included various fish and bird species, reindeer, moose, mushrooms and berries. Analyses show that the Pechenga Nikel refinery is responsible for elevated concentrations of several metals in local foods. More specifically, fish, mushrooms, and berries on both the Norwegian and the Russian side of the border (sampled close to Nikel) show elevated concentrations of nickel, copper, and cobalt; some samples also had elevated levels of cadmium and lead. The mercury concentrations are also higher than normal in some fish species in the area, but the link to the Nikel refinery is not clear. Apart from dioxins in reindeer and mercury in fish from certain lakes, none of the contaminants in local foods are present in concentrations that make the food unsafe for human consumption.
Surprisingly, reindeer meat collected in Norway contains more dioxins than was recently reported in reindeer meat from Finland. Dioxins and dioxin-like substances are classified as both toxic and carcinogenic, but there are unfortunately no international guidelines as to what levels of these compounds are tolerable in reindeer meat. The concentrations detected have therefore been compared to EU maximum limits set for meat and meat products from bovine animals and sheep. The dioxin concentrations we uncovered give us reason to believe that families consuming large amounts of reindeer products, especially products rich in fat, risk exceeding tolerable amounts of dioxins. We have reported these findings to the appropriate Norwegian authorities and further investigations have been launched to clarify the extent of this problem. In addition, the exact sources of the dioxin must be identified.
Monitoring of radioactivity in the same food products showed generally low levels of radioactive caesium, below the national activity limits for food set in all three countries. Thus, the caesium content in environmental samples collected in 2013-2014 does not indicate a risk of human health issues or environmental impact.
Contaminant burden in pregnant women
Blood samples from expectant mothers in Russia, Finland and Norway contain toxic elements, but the concentration patterns differ slightly. Cadmium concentrations are higher in Russian women, and selenium concentrations are lower in samples from women living in northern Norway. The levels of persistent organic pollutants were low and of no concern in the Norwegian and Finnish cohorts, but there were some interesting differences compared with Russia. The levels of both dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene/dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, and another pesticide called hexachlorobenzene (HCB) were higher in the blood samples from Russian mothers. Use of DDT and HCB has long been banned through the Stockholm Convention (a global treaty), but the levels detected in these samples indicate recent, local use. The overall conclusion is that the average levels of toxic elements and organochlorines in pregnant women residing in the border area are not alarmingly high and not much higher than in women from this region that do not reside in the border area. On the other hand, some individual Russian samples contained levels that could imply heightened exposure of the unborn child.
Do people dare to eat local food?
An important part of the project involves assessing how the region’s inhabitants use local food, how they view the risks posed by food contamination, and what socioeconomic consequences it might have. For this part of the project we conducted a questionnaire survey investigating risk perception and knowledge about local pollution and food safety among the populations of Pechenga, Inari and Sør-Varanger.
People in the Norwegian–Russian–Finnish border region generally appear to be concerned about pollution by hazardous substances. This is affecting the populations’ consumption of local food and water, particularly in the Pechenga region. We found that risk perceptions vary in character between municipalities, most likely owing to differences in the pollution situation, in exposure to local contaminants through air and food, in cultural and political systems and values, and in how the risk is communicated.
The survey results also show that people’s concerns about pollutants vary greatly between different groups. The largest differences were found between Pechenga and the two other regions surveyed, but there are also systematic differences of risk perception between genders, education levels, and age groups. When asked to score their worry about environmental pollution on a scale from 1 to 10, a majority – 52% – of the respondents from Pechenga chose the highest alternative. In Inari and Sør-Varanger, by contrast, far fewer gave the highest score: only 19% and 6%, respectively.
The countries differ in terms of what types of food items the inhabitants gather from the local landscape and eat. People in the Inari region appear more likely to fish, hunt, or gather local food than people in other regions. Inari residents generally eat local produce more often than people from Sør-Varanger, who in turn eat it more often than the people from Pechenga. That said, the pattern for mushroom gathering differs from that of other food items.
Comparison of what the study participants considered a risk in the region with what environmental experts considered a threat, revealed that the average public opinion coincided well with that of the experts, with a few interesting exceptions. The findings from Sør-Varanger could suggest that the citizens have received relevant information (or sought it out on their own), and have understood the risks. Nonetheless, in both Sør-Varanger and the other municipalities surveyed, a majority of the people express a desire more information and state that greater attention should be focussed on local pollution issues.
Risk communication: important but tricky
Given some of the results about hazardous substances in animals and food, it seems likely that stricter pollution control is required, while the results of the surveys highlight a need for additional general information about the pollution situation and improvements in targeted risk communication. It also appears that risk is not communicated in a consistent way. The message can be shaped as much by political or cultural practices (trust or lack of trust in authorities: government, environmental groups, industry, research institutions) as by the data themselves. Some industry analysts claim to be at a disadvantage with regard to risk communication, as their statements are not considered as trustworthy as those coming from environmental organisations (for example). This demonstrates that risk communication practices are embedded within and influenced by different values articulated through political goals, as well as by the data itself. This in turn affects how community members perceive their own security.
Getting the message out
Our results have been disseminated in various venues: several international and national conferences, two separate summer schools (the Barents Summer School and Collaborative Arctic Seminars in Epidemiology), a Barents health conference in Kirkenes, a public meeting in Svanvik, and meetings with the Norwegian food safety authorities. In addition, several papers are being prepared on this topic for publication in peer-reviewed journals.
Project outcome so far
The project has contributed greatly towards strengthening cross-border cooperation between Norway, Finland and Russia, and has achieved several joint environmental assessments. In general, we have been able to enhance knowledge on contaminants in key species (food products) that are used for local consumption as well as being of commercial value, specifically reindeer, moose, fish, birds, mushrooms and berries. Local food – especially in the area northeast of the Nikel refinery – sometimes shows elevated levels of a number of toxic elements but the concentrations are not of major concern for human health. The project has revealed that populations living along the borders between Russia, Norway, and Finland differ in their diets, everyday activities and trust in authorities. Many of these results are being analysed for publication in scientific journals. The work also made it clear that risks to human health are calculated according to different protocols in these three countries, and – especially – that the national follow-up strategies differ. This project represents an excellent starting point for further research and cooperation between the food security agencies responsible for formulating food consumption guidelines in the three countries.
External partners: Fylkesmannen i Finnmark, Vadsø, Norway; Northern and Environmental Issues; Thule Institute, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland; Finnish Meteorological Institute, Helsinki, Finland; Murmansk Country Birth Registry, Murmansk, Russia; Institute for Ecological Problems, Kola Science Centre, Apatity, Russia; Northwest Public Health Research Center, St. Petersburg, Russia
Kolarctic ENPI CBC (ENPI financing instruments of the European Union); Kolarctic Norway; Troms fylkeskommune; Fram Centre funding from the Ministry of Climate and Environment, Norway, via the “Hazardous substances” flagship programme; and own contributions from the institutions.