Northern Contaminants Program - Background

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The Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) co-ordinates Canada's action on northern contaminants, including Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and mercury, both nationally and internationally. The NCP is a multidisciplinary initiative, funded by the Government of Canada, addressing health, science, and communications issues related to contaminants in Canada's Arctic. It was established in 1991 through the Government of Canada's Green Plan and Arctic Environmental Strategy (AES).

The NCP secretariat is part of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC). It is managed by a committee chaired by AANDC and consists of four federal government departments (AANDC, Health Canada, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada), the territorial governments (Nunavut, Northwest Territories, the Yukon) and representatives of Northern Aboriginal organizations including Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Inuit Circumpolar Council - Canada (ICC), Dene Nation and the Council of Yukon First Nations.

The overall objective of the Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) is to reduce and, where possible, eliminate contaminants from the Arctic environment while providing information to Northerners about contaminants in traditional/country foods to make informed decisions about their food use. The NCP is working towards achieving this objective through world-class scientific research and monitoring. This work is used to influence the development and implementation of international/global agreements to reduce and/or eliminate the production, use and release of contaminating substances into the environment. The results of this research and monitoring also form the basis for assessing risks to human health associated with contaminants in traditional/country foods. This information is used by national and regional health authorities to develop dietary advice to northerners, particularly those who are dependent on marine mammals and fish as an important part of their diets.

International/Global Agreements

In recent decades, the Arctic has emerged as a bellwether for the global environment. Though far removed from the industrial centres that generate pollution, the Arctic receives a class of pollutants that travel by long-range transport within the atmosphere, oceans and rivers. Because there are very few sources of contaminants in the Arctic, their presence is associated almost entirely with global sources outside the Arctic. Based in large part on early results provided by the NCP, four international agreements have been implemented to regulate the production, use and release of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals. These include the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (UNECE CLRTAP), Protocols on POPs and heavy metals (lead, cadmium and mercury), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Stockholm Convention on POPs and Minamata Convention on Mercury. Both the UNECE LRTAP and UNEP Stockholm conventions recognize that the presence of a specific chemical in the Arctic environment represents the strongest evidence that the chemical is a POP and subject to long-range transport. Heavy metals, particularly mercury, also exhibit the potential to be transported over long distances and deposited in the Arctic.

Impact of Contaminants on Human Health

The consideration of the impacts on human health is of particular importance to these international conventions and programs. Once again the Arctic emerges as the region where people are affected the most by global pollution. These impacts arise from the efficiency with which Arctic biological systems accumulate and biomagnify contaminants resulting in high levels of dietary exposure for upper trophic level wildlife and the people who rely on the wildlife for subsistence.

The NCP plays a very important role in generating scientific information on contaminants in the Arctic. This is critical to the further development (i.e., addition of new substances to the Stockholm Convention and CLRTAP) and implementation of these international agreements. The NCP and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) at the circumpolar level continue to influence the work carried out under these international conventions both the evaluation of the effectiveness of the programs and in the addition of new chemicals to the list of controlled substances. In May 2009, the Fourth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP4) to the Stockholm Convention approved the first evaluation report, which included Arctic baseline data under the Global Monitoring Plan. The NCP (and AMAP) was specifically mentioned in the evaluation report as an important long-term monitoring program providing significant Arctic trend data for POPs. NCP research results will help in the development of associated long-term global monitoring and research programs.

Interdisciplinary Approach to Research

Understanding contaminant pathways and processes in the Arctic, as well as the effects that contaminants may have on the wildlife and people who live there, is very much linked to an understanding of the workings of the entire Arctic ecosystem. This means that the NCP and its researchers must develop links between their own particular field of contaminants research and other fields of Arctic science. This interdisciplinary approach must include natural and social sciences as well as community-based monitoring and traditional knowledge. NCP scientists are encouraged to develop these links in their projects. Questions related to climate change and the influence it may have on contaminant pathways, processes and effects are being addressed by the NCP; however, this can only be done in cooperation with other programs that address issues related to climate change. Similarly there are benefits to coordinating NCP activities related to human health and communications with related programs dealing with climate change impacts and adaptation with Arctic communities (e.g., Health Canada's Climate Change and Health Adaptation for Inuit Communities program). A prime example of this type of cooperation was the Inuit Health Survey which combined resources from the NCP, ArcticNet, the International Polar Year (IPY), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and others to address a multitude of questions related to the health of Inuit.

National and International Partnerships

At AANDC- Northern Affairs Organization, NCP is part of a strong Arctic science plan that is integral to the Northern Strategy and the development of the Canadian High Arctic Research Station (CHARS). For example, the NCP blueprints which are the strategic long-term plans for NCP subprograms as well as the NCP management framework have been used as the model for development of the CHARS draft science plans.

NCP has been cultivating links with other Canadian Arctic science programs such as ArcticNet and IPY to promote coordination and cooperation. The NCP played an important role in the development of both these programs, particularly in the areas of Aboriginal involvement, management structure, and scientific and social/cultural review.

Internationally, the NCP, on behalf of Canada, plays a leadership role in AMAP, which coordinates Arctic science activities in cooperation with other working groups under the Arctic Council. The NCP also plays an important role in coordinating Canada's involvement in new Arctic science initiatives such as the development of a Sustained Arctic Observing Network (SAON) as a legacy of IPY.

The NCP has also encouraged northern Aboriginal organizations to participate actively in Arctic science initiatives and to help build Arctic science capacity in these organizations. This has had a direct effect on the development of national and international Arctic science and environmental policy. A good example of AANDC/NCP support for capacity building and recognition of the important contributions of northern Aboriginal organizations was the support for a representative from the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) to join the Canadian delegation at the Conference of the Parties (COP1 through 5) meetings for the Stockholm Convention. AANDC/NCP also continues to support ICC representatives as part of the Canadian delegation for the UNEP Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on global Mercury negotiations and treaty follow up. (INC-1 through 4). The final INC5 meeting will take place January 2013 in Geneva. As a result, Canada has received accolades from other countries, as well as from many non-governmental environmental and Aboriginal organizations.

The NCP has been a leader in advancing knowledge of chemical contaminants from long-range transport sources in the Canadian Arctic for over 20 years. During that time, Northerners have been encouraged to participate in a wide range of research activities; this has the added benefit of bringing the information back to Northern communities. These activities have resulted in the development of considerable local expertise in and understanding of the issues associated with Northern research. The NCP is proud that this capacity and knowledge played a vital role in the research and related activities associated with the International Polar Year (IPY). IPY also benefitted from the NCP best practices for building Northern capacity by establishing similar criteria in the IPY program. These aspects of the NCP's work were highlighted at various sessions of the IPY 2012 conference From Knowledge to Action held in Montréal, Quebec, April 22-27, 2012.

Regional Partnerships

The NCP works with the northern regions through five Regional Contaminants Committees (RCCs), and four Inuit Research Advisors (IRAs).

Contact Information

Regional Contaminants Committees

There are five RCCs funded through the NCP. These committees (in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut), vary in size and makeup, but all include representation from the regional health authorities, wildlife and research authorities, and aboriginal organizations. Some RCCs also include regional representatives from federal government departments and regional research institutes.

The primary purpose of the RCCs is to act as a link between the regions that they represent and the NCP as a national program. The RCCs provide the opportunity for local issues to be brought to a regional level, and then communicated to the NCP, and for project results coming from the program to be communicated at the regional and community level. These committees meet several times throughout the year to discuss research results and implications they may have on local populations. They also conduct a social/cultural review of NCP proposals each year for those projects undertaking work in the North. The chairs of the RCCs hold seats on the NCP Management Committee, which makes all major funding and operational decisions for the program.

Inuit Research Advisors

Inuit Research Advisors (IRAs) are positions funded in four Inuit regions in the North (Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Nunatsiavut) to help facilitate research on contaminants, climate change and environmental health, and work to engage Inuit in research activities of importance to their communities. These positions are co-funded by the NCP, ArcticNet, and the Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments.

The Inuit Research Advisors are knowledgeable and resourceful contacts for their regions. They are available to assist and advise researchers and Inuit communities in making the appropriate connections during the proposal development and during the project, and in dissemination and communication of research results. They can also assist in the development of new Inuit-driven research projects and identify and engage youth in training and educational opportunities and build research capacity in each region.