Latest study shows that mercury exposure causes premature mortality in the Grassy Narrows First Nation community

Since the 1960s, the Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) has lived with the consequences of one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history. The community’s livelihood, major food source, and health were devastated by the uncontrolled spill of approximately 22,000 pounds of mercury from a chlor-alkali plant in Dryden, Ontario. The toxins spilled right into the extensive aquatic ecosystem of the English-Wabigoon river.

Since the spill, community members have struggled with impairments linked to mercury poisoning. Efforts to control the mercury discharge have been wholly inadequate.  A new report, published in the Lancet, found that the shuttered Dryden Chemical plant continues to leak nearly 60 years later. This has left the community with mercury contamination in their rivers, lakes and surrounding areas where they continue to fish and hunt for their livelihoods. Mercury, because it is a persistent contaminant, has moved up the food chain, bioaccumulating in living organisms, inflicting increasing levels of harm on higher order species. In particular, the walleye fish —a cultural and diet mainstay for the community — has the highest mercury concentrations ever reported. 

For the past 50 years, Grassy Narrows First Nation has been fighting for river remediation, recognition of the long-term health effects of mercury exposure on their community, and support for appropriate health care. 

“My people are dying” said Judy Da Silva, an Anishinaabe mother and grandmother. It’s a sentiment shared with other community elders. The 2016 Canadian census reported that only 4% of individuals from the Grassy Narrows First Nation (English River 21, ON, Canada) were 65 years or older. 

Concerned about the impacts from exposure to mercury from freshwater fish consumption and its connection to premature mortality in the community, researchers and community members joined forces. In collaboration with the Grassy Narrows community, researchers set out to address the gap in scientific understanding over the last 28 years and examined whether high mercury exposure over time contributes to premature mortality (younger than 60 years) in the community. 

The findings are alarming: individuals who died before their 60th birthdays, had five-times higher mercury exposure than ‘normal’ levels. There is a significantly high risk of dying with a minimal concentration of mercury, according to the study.

The sobering conclusion came as no surprise to the people of Grassy Narrows: there is a clear association between long term mercury exposure from freshwater fish consumption and premature mortality. 

Researchers concluded, “For the community of Grassy Narrows, premature death also means that there are fewer elders to pass on traditional teachings and knowledge. 

The study focused on community members who were born before the onset of the discharge into the English-Wabigoon river system in the early 1960s. The health and social consequences of these early and life-time exposures are less-well understood: the study  did not include individuals born since that time, who were exposed to mercury in utero and early childhood, a critical period for developmental programming, particularly for the nervous system. 

The social realities in Grassy Narrows have led to an international campaign with Amnesty International to demand justice for the community. Grassy Narrows has stood as a shameful emblem of environmental racism for a generation: while science has proven the devastating effects of ongoing mercury poisoning, successive governments have failed to respond to the root causes of the poisoning. It is time to demand a healthy future for Grassy Narrows:


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