Our research group has studied the intersection of human and environmental health since 2013.

To this end, we champion the use of community-based approaches to examine contaminant exposures among Indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic and subarctic. Additionally, we use bench-science techniques investigate the ways and means by which nutrients occasionally counter the health risks posed by contaminants.

We currently have several ongoing projects examining the balance between contaminant risks and nutritional benefits from the consumption of wild-harvested, traditional foods.


Fish mercury levels in some lakes in the DehCho and Sahtú Regions of the Mackenzie Valley led to a series of consumption notices that suggested people limit their consumption of predatory fish from specific lakes. Also, concerns about cadmium levels led to a consumption notice on the kidneys and liver of moose from some parts of the territory.

To address these concerns, a multi-year biomonitoring study is investigating the levels of contaminant exposure among Indigenous communities in the DehCho and Sahtú Regions. To date, we have collected human hair, urine, and blood samples for contaminant biomonitoring from nine communities in 2016 to 2018. Participants have also completed surveys assessing perceptions of contaminants, current food consumption patterns and preferences for communication strategies. Public health messaging based upon this work, which began in 2016, will continue through 2018 to 2019. You can read the report on the findings of the research here.

This work is incorporating a risk-benefit approach that promotes the use of country foods in order to improve nutrition and food security while lessening contaminant exposure among First Nations in the Mackenzie Valley.

Sponsor(s): Northern Contaminants Program 

DehCho and Sahtu regions: participating communities

Map of Northwest Territories indicating participating communities: Fort Good Hope, Tulita, Deline, Trout Lake, Jean Marie River, Fort Providence, Kakisa, and Hay River


Wild foods are critical to the health and well-being of Indigenous communities of the Yukon and elsewhere. Therefore, Gwitch’in people of the Yukon have contributed to several long-running environmental monitoring studies that track the safety and sustainability of these foods.

Occasionally, these studies have shown particular wild foods to have high levels of some types of contaminants, raising concerns for some residents of Old Crow, Yukon about the safety of the wild foods in their territory.

To help address these concerns, this project will launch a human biomonitoring survey in Old Crow, Yukon, similar to those that have been done in Nunavik, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories. It is building off partnerships created among the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation (VGFN), Yukon First Nations, Yukon Government and research scientists in Ontario and Quebec.

Based on community feedback, this project will collect blood, hair, and urine samples for the measurement of metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), and emerging contaminants. Additionally, questionnaires will be used to assess current perceptions of contaminants and traditional food consumption. You can read about some of the results from this project here.

In addition to informing participants regarding current levels of exposure, this research will help inform public health communication strategies that promote the use of traditional foods while limiting people’s exposure to contaminants.

Sponsor(s): Northern Contaminants Program
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This research is investigating the ways and means by which selenium and omega-3 fatty acids protect against mercury’s harmful effects to the nervous and cardiovascular systems. To do so, we are exploring the interactions between mercury, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids in the gastrointestinal tract (i.e. prior to absorption into the body) as well as at the sites of toxic action (i.e. following absorption into the bloodstream). Over the short term, the focus of this program of study will be on levels and types of mercury and nutrients within the traditional foods of First Nations and Inuit.

The health problems that result from mercury in food can range from the subtle to the severe, largely depending on the level and form of the mercury in the foods being eaten. First Nations and Inuit in northern Canada face particularly high exposures to methylmercury. It is important to remember though that the primary sources of mercury for First Nations and Inuit are also often among the most nourishing and culturally-appropriate food options available in these communities. Therefore, attempts to limit Indigenous exposure to mercury from traditional foods have the potential to do more harm than good. Previous research has shown that particular nutrients (e.g. selenium, omega-3 fatty acids), are occasionally able to offset mercury risks. But, it’s not yet understood whether or not these nutrient-contaminant interactions are relevant to all of mercury’s harmful effects or just a subset of them.

Over the course of this research, our team is:

  • Identifying which factors control the availability of metals for uptake from the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Determining whether selenium and omega-3 fatty acids  protect against mercury’s toxic effects in a variety of cell culture and in vivo models.

This work will provide information needed to better balance the toxicological risks and nutritional benefits of Indigenous traditional foods.

Sponsor(s): Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada


FIShNET (Fish & IndigenouS NorthErn healTh): Healthy Water, Healthy Fish, Healthy People

Traditional food is central to the identity and well-being of Indigenous people and a key component to maintaining food security in northern communities. Subsistence fishing plays a valuable role in helping fishers to meet the basic needs of food security for themselves, their families, and their communities. The FIShNET project aims to characterize the links between environmental change, water quantity and quality, fish health, food safety, and food security in one subarctic First Nations community (Fort Albany) in northern Ontario.

The main outcomes of this project will include:

  • Determination of fish health concerns from the community

  • Strengthened relationships and opportunities for engagement, understanding of communication preferences, and tailored tools for risk communication

  • Improved ability to detect and predict changes in the safety and sustainability of fish stocks in the face of changing climate and resource development

  • Fill site-specific data gaps related to levels and sources mercury exposure in participating communities

  • A better understanding of the relationship between fish and food security

  • Design a platform to build future data visualization tools

Overall this project will identify and fill regional specific data gaps, as well as generate key information needed to guide community-based mitigation strategies to maintain and improve health and well-being in the face of environmental change.

Sponsor(s): Global Water Futures


This project is being led by the Sahtú Renewable Resources Board (SRRB) and supported by the University of Waterloo. Previous consultations with communities in the Sahtú region have demonstrated the importance of country foods and the necessity to balance risks and benefits when returning findings to the communities. In addition, concerns were raised about climate changes issues and the importance of country foods in the diet. Therefore, the aim of this project is to assess food security and nutrient intakes, and to facilitate the knowledge sharing to improve food resilience to climate change in the region.

To examine these issues, nutrients will be measured in blood samples already collected from participants (from the Northwest Territories: Mackenzie Valley Biomonitoring Project) and will then be compared to recommended nutrient levels. These results will be used to identify the most vulnerable groups in the region and investigate the role of country foods in preventing food insecurity. The conclusions will be shared with community delegates/knowledge users in person in Waterloo. The community partners and researchers will share knowledge on food security challenges and opportunities. This project will support the discussion about challenges to food security, climate change, and possibilities to increase resilience in this sub-arctic region.

Sponsor(s): Canadian Institutes of Health Research