Scientists are taking samples from Northwest Territories residents as they work to better understand contaminants in fish and country food.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo were in Hay River on Monday. They plan to travel throughout the Sahtu and Dehcho regions over the coming weeks, taking samples of blood, hair and urine from volunteers in some communities.

The project, 18 months in the planning, will help scientists figure out the extent to which NWT residents are exposed to contaminants like lead, mercury and cadmium.

Mylène Ratelle is the project’s research coordinator. She told Moose FM the aim is to establish the risk posed to residents’ health by locally acquired fish and country foods.

“I am talking about contaminants but we will also quantify nutrients, because it’s essential to balance the risks and benefits of country food before providing advisories to limit their consumption,” said Ratelle.

“This project will help people identify the best country food to provide the most nutrients and least contaminants.”

On Facebook: Follow the University of Waterloo research team

Volunteers in Jean Marie River will be the first to provide hair and blood samples. Those will be sent away for lab analysis, with Ratelle hoping to return results to participants within six months.

Previous studies have looked directly at the meat and fish itself to assess levels of contaminants. This research is different in that it focuses on humans, assessing the level to which those contaminants are absorbed.

“We already know there are contaminants in food but every individual has different patterns of food consumption,” said Ratelle.

“Maybe a fisherman that eats fish every day will present a lot more contaminants than someone who eats fish only once every two weeks.”

Ratelle says this research began as a result of Hay River residents expressing concerns about contaminants during a prior study related to fish.

“Community members had concerns: ‘OK, we know there’s mercury in fish, but what about my health? Is it a risk for my health?’ This is how the project began, two years ago,” she said.

Brian Laird, who led that previous fish study, is again the principal investigator in this newest research.

He and Ratelle have already visited Fort Simpson. Communities such as Trout Lake and Kakisa are also on their itinerary.

A summary of Laird’s proposed work, available on the Aurora Research Institute’s NWT research database, says this work could lead to “the creation of a public health screening tool that will be used to characterize those most at risk of facing elevated contaminant exposures in the Dehcho Region”.