Copeland: It is always a privilege to spend one-on-one time with the ice. Different seasons yield different interactions on the sea ice, and in the spring, milder temperatures allow for more focused observations, and less on survival. But on this trip, I was most affected by my time spent with the Inughuit of Qeqertat, the Greenlandic Inuit.
This remote village, one of the northernmost in Greenland, is located on an island set in a large fjord. Until early June, the fjord is frozen solid. Qeqertat is cut off from the outside, with no traditional communication: no internet, no cell reception, no TV; just one satellite phone for the whole village in case of emergencies. In winter, its population is reduced to about twelve people (it doubles in the summer from visiting fishermen).
There was a little girl named Kulunnguaq (8) who was born and raised in the village. When another family moved away, that little girl became the only child in the village, and her schooling was cancelled. She was curious and followed me everywhere. (And I don’t think this had anything to do with the chocolate I gave her!) When I visited the larger village of Qaanaaq on my way to Qeqertat, I met a biologist who was measuring levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s) in local food.
POP’s are insoluble carcinogens; they are very difficult to break down. They infiltrate the water streams from agricultural or industrial run-offs in the milder latitudes. From there, the chemicals set in the fatty tissues of fish that get transported up the gulf stream and enter the human food chain. Babies get poisoned through their mother’s nursing milk or blood cord from consuming fish and seal meat. Adverse health effects include cancer, immunosuppression, loss of cognitive and neurobehavioral function among others.
Kulunnguaq was diagnosed with residual effects of POP poisoning, notably diabetes. It is remarkable for a child who has only lived thousands of kilometers away from the societies where those chemicals are released, and whose diet excludes sugars and trans fats. I have also observed this in the northern communities of Nunavut, in Canada. It is a cautionary tale of our careless development and its destructive and often unseen implications.