Grassy Narrows hires environmental health expert to prove extent of mercury poisoning

The community has hired Donna Mergler, a member of a World Health Organization-affiliated research group

A northwestern Ontario First Nation with a history of health problems related to mercury poisoning is working with a Canadian environmental health expert to document the extent of those issues.

Grassy Narrows has commissioned Donna Mergler, a member of a World Health Organization-affiliated research group based at the Université du Quebec à Montreal. Part of her work, according to the community’s environmental health coordinator, is a wide-ranging survey of over 800 households in the First Nation.

“It’s getting general health details of the people,” Judy Da Silva told CBC News. “Like saying ‘do you eat fish, do you eat moose, do you eat wild rice, or, like was your dad a fisherman, were your grandparents fisher-people?”

Aside from questions pertaining to mercury, Da Silva said the query also covers family histories and across-the-board medical questions. She said a final report based on the survey is expected to be released in January.

That research is part of wider-ranging efforts by the First Nation — located about 100 kilometres northeast of Kenora — to collate a wide range of studies and research on the health of the community since mercury-containing industrial effluent was dumped into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s and 70s by a Dryden, Ont.-based mill.

“We’re in the process of … pulling all these different studies that have been done on Grassy Narrows from, maybe the 1960s to now,” Da Silva said. She added that these efforts include trying to access recent findings by Japanese experts as well as decades of medical data from Health Canada garnered from the collection of umbilical cords of Grassy Narrows babies born at the Kenora hospital.

“Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to pull together so we get a full picture of how mercury has poisoned our people,” Da Silva said. “Also for people to know we are poisoned because there’s been such a denial that our people are poisoned.”

A disability compensation board for residents of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong was established in 1986 as part of an out-of-court settlement with the federal government, Ontario and industry. However, only about one quarter of the people who apply are approved. Senior levels of government have pledged to reform the board.

Da Silva said she also hopes the findings will result in better local healthcare for those who suffer from the effects of mercury poisoning, an issue that advocates have been pushing for for a long time.

“I think other services would kick in,” she said. “Like in Kenora … if the health services in Kenora know Grassy people are poisoned by mercury, then maybe their services would be updated and would be [able to] address our people in a unique way.”

The closest centre to Grassy Narrows for specialized treatment is three hours away in Winnipeg.

“It’s a feeling of justice for the community to know that it’s true, that we are poisoned,” Da Silva said of the importance of the studies they’re doing.