Friday, March 12, 2010

Climate Justice - A Lenten Journey of Discovery, week 3

Climate Change and Health - A Story
Written by Chloe Schwabe
nvironmental Health Program Director
National Council of Churches

Vi Waghiyi is from the native Arctic Yupik community of St Lawrence Island in Alaska. The Yupik communities on the island are members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and see their traditional diet of fish, seals, birds, and bird eggs as a form of physical and spiritual sustenance. But climate change and toxic chemicals produced and used in far away places threaten their spiritual and cultural traditions.

Vi and her family are suffering from the impacts of climate change – but not in the way that you might imagine. As temperatures warm and ice melts, indigenous communities are seeing increased exposure to toxic chemicals. Toxic chemicals emitted by industries around the globe are carried to the Artic by wind and water currents and locked away in the ice. As ice melts, these chemicals, known as PBTs - persistent, because they last in the environment for many years, bioaccumulative, because they can be stored in body fat, and toxic, because they are harmful to health - are seeping into Arctic waters and eventually the bodies of Alaska natives.
“The Indigenous Arctic peoples are suffering the most from these chemicals,” says Vi Waghiyi, “because the chemicals – pesticides, perfluorinated compounds and toxic flame retardants—are long lasting, and drift North on wind and water currents from where they are applied in the Southern latitudes. That means these chemicals are also in our traditional foods and affecting our health and the health of our children.”

As ice melts, levels of PBTs are on the rise in Arctic species such as polar bears, eagles, northern fur seals, and green-winged teals. Native peoples consume these species as part of their traditional diet. These chemicals, many linked to health conditions such as infertility, learning and developmental disabilities, and cancer, accumulate in fat and become more toxic as they move up the food chain. For example, Inuit women have higher levels of PBTs in their breast milk than most women, putting their children at risk for chemical contamination if they choose to breast feed.

For the Yupik residents of St. Lawrence, the addition of contaminants adds a greater burden of chemicals to already high exposures due to an abandoned U.S. Cold War military base that has not been cleaned up. Many community members have died from cancer or are fighting cancer. Children are more susceptible to immune deficiency diseases and developmental disabilities. Vi herself has had had three miscarriages.

The story of St. Lawrence reminds us of the interconnectedness of God’s web of creation and reminds us that the choices we make can impact the health of our brothers and sisters here and around the world and the health of all God’s creatures. We are all part of the body of Christ, and as one part of Creation suffers, we all suffer (Romans 12:5). When Arctic communities experience health challenges and other impacts of climate change we share in their suffering. We can respond to the suffering of others through individual choices and stronger climate change and chemical policies.
“The act and ritual of our subsistence food activities encompass who we are and is a vital source of our spirituality. I emphasize these things because I want you to know how much of an impact the threat of contaminants has on these things that are so sacred to us.” - Sally Smith, Chairperson, Alaska Native Health Board

Learn More Listen to a radio program about the Yupik communities in St Lawrence Island.

Read more about the St Lawrence community

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