Risks to Northern Alaskan Inupiat: Assessing Potential Effects of Oil Contamination on Subsistence Lifestyles, Health, and Nutrition

EPA Grant Number: R831045
Title: Risks to Northern Alaskan Inupiat: Assessing Potential Effects of Oil Contamination on Subsistence Lifestyles, Health, and Nutrition
Investigators: Wetzel, Dana L. , Hepa, Taqulik , O'Hara, Todd M. , Reynolds, John E. , Willetto, Carla
Institution: Mote Marine Laboratory
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: August 1, 2003 through July 1, 2006
Project Amount: $437,399
RFA: Lifestyle and Cultural Practices of Tribal Populations and Risks from Toxic Substances in the Environment (2002) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Environmental Justice , Global Climate Change , Tribal Environmental Health Research , Health , Safer Chemicals


Scientists have focused on potential effects of toxic substances on Native populations with subsistence lifestyles in the Arctic. Risks from toxicant exposures range from direct health hazards to changes in lifestyle that may impair nutrition and health. Petroleum hydrocarbons may enter the Arctic environment in a variety of ways. Oil and gas production in the Arctic occurs at a high level and may increase. Petroleum can enter humans through species that form a major part of the Inupiat diet in northern Alaska. In Barrow, 75% of Inupiat households consume bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), and nearly 50% consume bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus). Marine mammals are exposed to petroleum directly or through their diet and may metabolically transform petroleum-related compounds. Based on toxicological properties, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the human diet should be investigated. Limited information is available on the extent to which: a) species eaten by the Inupiat are exposed to and contaminated by petroleum; b) contamination may cause Inupiat households to avoid eating traditional foods; and c) handling and preparation of foods affect levels of ingested PAHs.


Our proposal involves Inupiat leaders and diverse scientists to: a) characterize levels of PAHs in a range of tissues from bowhead whales and bearded seals; b) characterize PAH levels in meat and other food items following their handling and preparation for consumption; c) document "traditional biomarkers" (e.g., odors) that Native hunters and field scientists use to accept or reject tissues for consumption following harvest; d) assess chemical or histological assays that could serve as low cost biomarkers of exposure; e) use published information and results of this study to develop a risk assessment model incorporating both health risks associated with ingestion of petroleum-related compounds and cultural and nutritional risks related to avoidance of certain foods; and f) develop outreach and public awareness programs to inform residents in northern Alaska of issues, potential consequences, and options.


We will acquire specimen materials from bowhead whales and bearded seals taken during the subsistence harvest. At harvest, traditional observations and traditional knowledge will be recorded regarding perceptions of the quality of the meat and organs. Samples will be analyzed using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry for various PAHs. In addition, samples of meat and blubber will be marked and re-analyzed following a six-month storage period and preparation in traditional ways. Biochemical, metabolic, and histological assays will assess exposure of free-ranging whales and seals. Once a risk assessment model is developed and evaluated, appropriate Native spokespersons will work with the scientists to develop and disseminate information to towns and villages about risks associated with oil-related pollution and consumption of whale and seal meat.

Expected Results:

The unusual combination of traditional knowledge, powerful scientific analyses, and integrative modeling, will permit our development of outreach tools and messages, delivered by appropriate Native spokespersons, to empower Alaskan Inupiats with insights and information that will allow them to choose options to reduce their risk from PAH exposure and to maintain good nutrition and health.

Publications and Presentations:

Publications have been submitted on this project: View all 13 publications for this project

Supplemental Keywords:

human health; indicators; community-based; environmental chemistry; zoology; toxicology; North Slope, AK; food processing., Health, Scientific Discipline, Geographic Area, HUMAN HEALTH, Health Risk Assessment, Exposure, State, Risk Assessments, PAH, Inupiat, human exposure, Alaska (AK), toxic environmental contaminants, biomarker based exposure inference, dietary exposure, human health risk

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2004
  • 2005
  • Final Report