Synopsis of research conducted under the 2016-2017 Northern Contaminants Program

Abstracts and Key Messages (PDF)

Full Report - bilingual (PDF)


The Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) works to reduce and, wherever possible, eliminate contaminants in traditionally harvested foods, while providing information that assists informed decision making by individuals and communities in their food use. The Synopsis of Research Conducted under the 2016-2017 Northern Contaminants Program: Abstracts and Key Messages provides a summary of the activities and preliminary results of each project funded under the NCP between April 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017.

The projects described in this report cover the broad range of topics that contribute to understanding and addressing northern contaminants issues. They are arranged according to the five NCP subprograms: Human Health; Environmental Monitoring and Research; Communications, Capacity and Outreach; Community Based Monitoring and Research; and Program Coordination and Indigenous Partnerships. Specific research priorities, as outlined in the program’s strategic documents (i.e. the NCP Blueprints and NCP Call for Proposals 2016-2017), included dietary contaminant exposure, food choice, and risk perception; effects of contaminants on the health of people and ecosystems; contaminant levels and trends in the Arctic environment/wildlife and the influence of climate change; and the benefits/risk evaluation of country food consumption. Projects were carried out using a variety of methodologies including fieldwork, laboratory analysis, community based monitoring, Indigenous Knowledge workshops, and much more.

All projects supported by the NCP are subject to a comprehensive technical, peer and northern social/cultural review process, involving external peer reviewers, technical review teams, regional contaminants committees and the NCP Management Committee. This review process ensures that each project supports the priorities and objectives of the NCP and its partners. Engagement and partnership with Indigenous organizations, northern territorial and/or community authorities is required for all projects involving activities within northern communities, fieldwork in the North and/or analyses of samples, as a condition of approval for funding.

This report contributes to ensuring the transparency of the NCP and the timely sharing of results. More detailed project reports, describing project objectives, activities, results, and conclusions are compiled in the Synopsis of Research Conducted under the 2016-2017 Northern Contaminants Program: Full Report, which is available through the NCP Publications Database at All individual project reports have been lightly edited for clarity and consistency.

In addition to the Synopsis of Research publications, publications related to NCP funded projects (including peer reviewed journal articles) can be searched and accessed through the NCP Publications Database at Also, data and metadata associated with individual projects can be found on the Polar Data Catalogue website at

Further information about the Northern Contaminants Program is available on the NCP website at


The Northern Contaminants Program (NCP) engages Northerners and scientists in researching and monitoring of long-range contaminants in the Canadian Arctic, that is, contaminants that are transported to the Arctic through atmospheric and oceanic processes from other parts of the world and which remain in the Arctic environment and build up in the food chain. The data generated by the NCP is used to assess ecosystem and human health, and the findings of these assessments are used to address the safety and security of traditional country foods that are important to the health and traditional lifestyles of Northerners and northern communities. The findings also inform policy, resulting in action to eliminate contaminants from long-range sources. The NCP contributes scientific data and expertise to contaminants-related international initiatives such as the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), and to international agreements such as the United Nations Environment Programme’s Minamata Convention on Mercury and Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, that work on a global scale to improve the health of Arctic people and wildlife over the long term.

The NCP is directed by a management committee that is chaired by Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), and consists of representatives from four federal departments (Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Health and CIRNAC), five territorial, provincial and regional governments (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut), four northern Indigenous organizations (Council of Yukon First Nations, Dene Nation, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Inuit Circumpolar Council), five regional contaminants committees, and Canada’s only Arctic-focused Network of Centres of Excellence (ArcticNet). The NCP Management Committee is responsible for establishing NCP policy and science priorities and for making final decisions on the allocation of funds. The Regional Contaminants Committees in Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik and Nunatsiavut support this national committee with region-specific expertise and advice. Funding for the NCP’s $4.1 million annual budget comes from CIRNAC and Health Canada. Details about the management structures and review processes used to effectively implement the NCP, and the protocol used to publicly disseminate health and harvest information generated by the NCP can be found in the NCP Operational Management Guide (available upon request from the NCP Secretariat).


In 2016-2017, the NCP celebrated its 25th anniversary of funding contaminants research and communications activities in northern Canada. The NCP was established in 1991 in response to concerns about human exposure to elevated levels of contaminants in fish and wildlife species that are important to the traditional diets of northern Indigenous peoples. Early studies indicated that there was a wide spectrum of substances - persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and radionuclides - many of which had no Arctic or Canadian sources, but which were, nevertheless, reaching unexpectedly high levels in the Arctic ecosystem.

The Program’s key objective is to reduce and, where possible, eliminate contaminants in northern traditional/country foods while providing information that assists informed decision making by individuals and communities in their food use.

Under the first phase of the NCP, research was focused on gathering the data required to determine the levels, geographic extent, and source of contaminants in the northern atmosphere, environment and its people, and the probable duration of the problem. The data enabled us to understand the spatial patterns and temporal trends of contaminants in the North, and confirmed our suspicions that the major sources of contaminants were other countries. The data, which included information on the benefits from continued consumption of traditional/ country foods, was also used to carry out assessments of human health risks resulting from contaminants in those foods. Results were synthesized in the first Canadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report (1997).

Extensive consultations were conducted in 1997-1998 to find the common elements between the concerns and priorities of northern communities and the scientific needs identified as critical for addressing the issue of contamination in Canada’s North. As a result, research priorities were developed based on an understanding of the species that are most relevant for human exposure to contaminants in the North, and geographic locations and populations that are most at risk.

In 1998, initiatives got under way to redesign the NCP, and implement new program features which continue to this day: 1) the NCP blueprints that represent the long-term vision and strategic direction for the NCP; and 2) an open and transparent proposal review process. These features ensure that the NCP remains scientifically defensible and socio-culturally aware, while at the same time, achieving real progress in terms of the Program’s broad policy objectives.

In 1998-1999, the NCP began its second phase, which continued until 2002-2003. Results of this phase were synthesized in the Canadian Arctic Contaminants Assessment Report II (CACAR II 2003). During that time, the NCP supported research designed to answer questions about the impacts and risks to human health that may result from current levels of contamination in key Arctic food species. To ensure a balanced assessment of the risks of consuming traditional food, an emphasis was placed on characterizing and quantifying the benefits associated with traditional diets. Communications activities were also emphasized and supported. Under the leadership of the northern Indigenous organizations, the dialogue between northerners and the scientific community, which had been initiated during the early days of the NCP, continued to build awareness and an understanding of contaminants issues, and helped to support communities in dealing with specific contaminant issues at the local level.

Since 2003, the NCP has continued to contribute to assessments that synthesize data funded through the NCP program. In 2009, the NCP released the Canadian Arctic Contaminants and Health Report. This report compiled research funded under the Human Health subprogram since the CACAR II release in 2003. It covered topics including health status of the Canadian Arctic population, human exposure to contaminants, toxicology, epidemiology, and risk-benefit evaluation.

Efforts on a third series of assessments got under way in 2010, leading to the release of the CACAR III: Mercury in Canada’s North, in December 2012; the CACAR III: Persistent Organic Pollutants in Canada’s North, in December 2013; and the CACAR III Contaminants In Canada’s North: Summary for Policy Makers, in April 2015.

The next reports in the CACAR series, Contaminants in Canada’s North: State of Knowledge and Regional Highlights, and Human Health 2017 will be released in 2018.

International Impact

The NCP effort to achieve international controls of contaminants has remained strong throughout the program’s history. The NCP continues to generate data that allows Canada to play a leading role, particularly through cooperative actions under the Arctic Council’s Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), in the following initiatives:

  1. The legally binding POPs protocol, under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN ECE) Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, was successfully negotiated and signed by 34 countries (including Canada) at the UN ECE Ministerial conference in Arhus, Denmark in June 1998. Canada ratified this agreement in December 1998.
  2. A legally binding global instrument on POPs under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was completed with the signing of the POPs Convention in Stockholm, Sweden, May 23, 2001; the UNEP Stockholm Convention on POPs entered into force in May 2004.
  3. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, a legally-binding agreement to cut emissions and releases of mercury to the environment, entered into force on August 16, 2017. The convention was signed by Canada in October 2013 and on April 7, 2017. Canada became the 41st country to ratify the treaty. The NCP made important contributions to this historic signing and ratification, through use of its data, information and expertise, and will continue to play a role in monitoring the effectiveness of the Convention. The first meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP1) from September 24 to 29, 2017, discussed procedures and directions for the implementation of the Convention.

10 Key Findings of the Northern Contaminants Program

(from Contaminants in Canada’s North: Summary for Policy Makers, 2015)

  1. Concentrations of ‘legacy POPs’ are generally going down across the Arctic.
  2. As ‘new POPs’ come under regulation, their levels in the Arctic decline.
  3. Mercury levels in the Arctic are stabilizing but are still several times higher than during pre-industrial times.
  4. Climate change can affect how POPs and mercury cycle in the Arctic environment and accumulate in wildlife.
  5. The complex movement of contaminants in the Arctic environment and wildlife is now better understood.
  6. Current levels of POPs and mercury may be a risk for the health of some Arctic wildlife species.
  7. While exposure to most POPs and mercury is generally decreasing among Northerners, mercury remains a concern in some regions.
  8. Traditional/country foods continue to be important for maintaining a healthy diet for Northerners.
  9. Environmental exposure to contaminants in the Arctic has been linked to health effects in people.
  10. Continued international action is vital to reducing contaminant levels in the Arctic.

Current Directions of the Northern Contaminants Program:

(adapted from Contaminants in Canada’s North: Summary for Policy Makers, 2015)

In terms of Environmental Monitoring and Research, the NCP

  • is continuing to play a critical role in the detection of new chemical contaminants of concern to the Arctic and will continuously review and refine its list of contaminants of concern.
  • is enhancing the measurement of long-term trends of mercury and POPs by filling gaps in geographic coverage.
  • is carrying out more research to understand the effects of climate change and predict their impacts on contaminant dynamics and ecosystem and human health risks.
  • is supporting the expansion of community-based monitoring projects that build scientific capacity in the North and optimize the use of traditional knowledge.

In terms of Human Health Research, Monitoring and Risk Assessment, the NCP

  • is addressing ongoing public health concerns related to contaminants and food safety, in partnership with territorial/regional health authorities by:
    • weighing the risks associated with exposure to POPs and mercury against the wide ranging benefits of consuming traditional/country foods; and
    • expanding monitoring of contaminant exposure among human populations across the North, and research on potential health effects in collaboration with Northern communities, to provide current information to public health officials.

In terms of Communications and Outreach, the NCP

  • is communicating research results and information about contaminants and risk to Northerners in the context of broader environmental (e.g. climate change) and health messages. Timely and culturally sensitive messages are being developed and communicated in association with regional health authorities and other appropriate spokespeople; these communication initiatives will be evaluated for their effectiveness.
  • is ensuring that NCP data and information is effectively communicated to key international networks, such as AMAP, and the Global Monitoring Plans under the Stockholm and Minamata Conventions for the purpose of evaluating the effectiveness of global regulations.