ANTHC Program To Monitor Toxicity in Subsistence Foods

For the first time in the United States, a technology traditionally used on humans is testing possible widespread threats to food security.

The technology is filter paper, and it is used to collect blood samples. Throughout the Bering Strait region, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium is distributing the paper to subsistence hunters to collect blood specimens from subsistence mammals.

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Bearded seals are one of the subsistence species hunters will collect blood samples from using the new filter paper kits. Photo by NOAA.

James Berner is the Senior Director for Science at the Division of Community Health at ANTHC and is leading the project, which is funded by an $888,282 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’ll put kits together in a small plastic bag,” Berner explained, “and the kit has an envelope to mail the dried filter paper sample in and a form for the hunter to fill out that says what the animal is, the sex, where it was collected, and the date.”

The samples will test for metal contaminants like mercury, human-made contaminants like PCBs, and antibodies to pathogens an animal has previously been exposed to.

The researchers theorize contaminants and pathogens are escalating in the Arctic as climate change alters wind and ocean currents. If these substances are increasing, they could accumulate in the bodies of subsistence mammals, threatening food security for communities throughout Western Alaska.

“Right now,” Berner said, “we don’t know the magnitude and the actors in the food security threats. We only know what they might be and what we’ve found in a few animals over the years. And the way to deal with this is to be able to test the herds that you harvest from and find out what the prevalence of any given risk is.”

Berner said federal agencies like the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association and the Fish and Wildlife Service are interested in the possible changes occurring in Arctic wildlife, but their limited number of scientists can only be in so many places at once to study those shifts. Subsistence hunters, on the other hand, cover a broad geographic area and collect hundreds of potential samples per community per year— hence the filter paper kits.

Filter paper is more convenient for hunters to use than traditional methods of sampling, such as syringes and vials. Berner said the kits can be carried in a coat pocket; they do not have to be kept frozen; and there is no regulation for mailing filter paper blood specimens like there is for mailing liquid blood.

Richard Kuzuguk is with the Shishmaref Environmental Program and underwent training with ANTHC on how to use the kits this summer. Kuzuguk said the lightweight portability of the filter paper increases the chances hunters will take the sampling kits with them on their hunts.

“Sometimes we travel 72 miles to a hunt area in the ocean,” Kuzuguk explained. “That would eliminate a lot of the weight that we carry back as far as our subsistence, because most of time, most hunters will think of the subsistence first then the sampling secondary.”

Kuzuguk will be part of a team distributing the kits to hunters in Shishmaref. Participation is voluntary, and Kuzuguk expects 70-percent of the community’s hunters to take part.

Kuzuguk said recent instances like the 2011 Unusual Mortality Event where hundreds of sick seals were reported throughout the Bering Sea is motivating hunters to participate in the sampling, and the community will focus on collecting specimens from bearded seals, Shishmaref’s primary food staple.

“We depend on bearded seal for a good portion of our diet year-round,” Kuzuguk said. “That area and concern with the health and safety with our subsistence food is a real high priority.”

The project’s grant is slated to run three years. To participate in the sampling, contact James Berner or Michael Brubaker at ANTHC.

Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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