Roundtable Discussions: What Can we Do About Mercury in Our Water?
Posted on: March 14, 2017
Judy Da Silva, environmental activist from the Grassy Narrows First Nation discussing the impacts of mercury on her community (LEFT: Brian Branfireun, Canada Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability)

On Monday, March 7th Lakehead University hosted a roundtable discussion at Thunder Bay Art Gallery entitled “What Can We Do About Mercury In Our Water?”

The event was held as part of Lakehead University’s Research and Innovation Week. The focus of this year’s event was sustainability. The talk was well-attended by people genuinely concerned with mercury as a contaminant and the potential impact the substance has on our environment and our health.

Lakehead University interim vice-provost Peggy Smith served as moderator for the roundtable that included Lakehead University’s Canada Research Chair in Freshwater Ecology and Fisheries Michael Rennie, University of Western Ontario’s Canada Research Chair in Environment and Sustainability Brian Branfireun, Lakehead University biology professor Peter Lee, who works on mercury issues with Seine River First Nation, and Judy Da Silva, an internationally-recognized environmental activist and member of Grassy Narrows First Nation.

The roundtable discussion was particularly timely due to ongoing concerns about mercury at Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. In addition, Thunder Bay is also struggling to deal with mercury-contaminated sediment in its harbour on Lake Superior.

During the roundtable, Dr. Lee explained that mercury issues in the Seine River situation were not well known to the public and were associated with man-made reservoirs. He pointed out that methylmercury (MeHg) is a more toxic form of mercury. He said the presence of higher MeHg concentrations in dam reservoirs in comparison to reference lakes is well documented. He also explained that as mercury makes its way up the food chain, fish consumption becomes a major source of mercury ingestion by humans.

Dr. Lee went on to say that during work to better understand mercury in the environment, residents of Seine River First Nation collected their own fish samples. He said there was a very high level of expertise among some of the Seine River Band members in collecting and dealing with fish utilized in the scientific process to determine contaminant levels.

Dr. Brian Branfireun pointed out that understanding mercury in the environment, along with its impacts, was far from a linear process, involving many factors. He said the process of “methylation”, whereby “methylating bacteria” in aquatic ecosystems transforms inorganic mercury into methylmercury, is dependent on many environmental factors. He stressed the importance of understanding that rates of methylation vary widely and are dependent on factors unique to individual ecosystems and locations. He emphasized the importance of additional research about environmental factors affecting methylation.

At times during the roundtable, all of the academics deferred to Judy Da Silva, not only on matters related to the impacts of mercury on the health and well-being of Grassy Narrows residents, but also on scientific matters. She was asked about early fish sampling protocols; the size of these samples; what year sampling had begun; in which years sampling had been carried out and who were the scientists involved? Judy answered all of these questions and pointed out, that over several decades, a very robust scientific team had evolved and was still working towards positive resolution of the English-Wabigoon mercury situation.

She said that research scientist Dr. John Rudd, lead author of a recent paper examining cleanup options, was part of this team. Judy displayed in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the mercury situation, including impacts on the communities of Grassy Narrows and Whitedog.

When asked about the recent Ontario government announcement to carry out mercury cleanup in the English-Wabigoon, Judy expressed sincere appreciation. She also expressed reservation, saying it had been a long road and community members told her, “we will believe it when we see it.”

Read more…(the latter part of this linked article contains further background information about mercury).

Learn how Lakehead University Northern Environments and Cultures Masters level student Samuel Pegg is researching risk communication associated with mercury contamination in Thunder Bay Harbour (3′ video).

Copies of the report on English-Wabigoon River cleanup options are available from riverrun2010 at gmail dot com.

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