A study found significant association between inter-generational exposure to mercury and Grassy Narrows’ high rates of youth suicide attempts.
WARNING: This story contains sensitive subject matter, including suicide and self-harm, that could be triggering for some readers.
Mercury dumped upstream of Grassy Narrows First Nation decades ago has contributed to the community’s youth attempting suicide at a rate three times higher than other First Nations in Canada, a new study has found.Randy Risling / Toronto Star
The Toronto Star: Industrial waste dumped upstream of Grassy Narrows First Nation decades ago has contributed to the community’s youth attempting suicide at a rate three times that of other First Nations in Canada, a new study has found.
The intergenerational analysis, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, explored the association between three generations of ongoing mercury exposure and troubled emotions, behaviours and suicide attempts of young people living today in the community northeast of Kenora, Ont.
“I think it’s a very important finding so that young people understand why they feel the way they do,” said Judy Da Silva, a Grassy Narrows community member who co-authored the study.
The 61-year-old mother of five and grandmother to many said her family has been impacted by suicide attempts, with four relatives dying by suicide.
Just two days before the study was released, a Grassy Narrows youth died by suicide, according to officials from the First Nation.
The people were poisoned
From 1962 to 1970, the Dryden pulp and paper mill, operated by Reed Paper, dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds Grassy Narrows and nearby Wabaseemoong (Whitedog) Independent Nations.
The potent neurotoxin contaminated the river’s fish and poisoned the people who ate them.
Residents have long reported tremors, slurred speech, impaired hearing, tunnel vision and lost muscle co-ordination. Little was known, however, about any possible connection between the toxic exposure and the mental health of today’s youth.
Dr. Donna Mergler, along with fellow researchers and Da Silva, selected 80 Grassy Narrows mothers and their 162 children aged between five and 17 and found significant links between grandparents’ exposure to mercury, the mothers’ psychological distress and the grandchildren’s risk for attempted suicide.
“This is important because the community needs adequate resources to deal with these issues,” said Mergler, who is a professor emerita in the department of biological sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
In the 1960s, the Dryden pulp and paper mill dumped 10 tonnes of mercury into the Wabigoon River that feeds the Grassy Narrows First Nation.Todd Korol / Toronto Star
A legacy of tainted fish
The links were identified in two pathways: one, through mothers who suffered psychological distress caused by their prenatal and childhood mercury exposure through fish consumption; the second, through mothers whose fathers worked as fishing guides and who had eaten fish during pregnancy.
In the early 1960s, about 80 per cent of Grassy Narrows households had at least one family member who worked as a fishing guide, according to the study.
Both pathways were found to have contributed to poor mental health among Grassy Narrows children and youth. The second pathway — focusing on the descendants of fishing guides — was also associated with emotional and behavioural problems in the community’s children and youth. These problems are directly associated with an elevated risk of attempted suicides.
Youth suicide attempts in Grassy Narrows were three times as high as in other First Nations in Canada, and the rate of Indigenous suicide attempts is five to seven times that of non-Indigenous youth, according to the researchers.
The prevalence of both suicidal ideation and attempted suicide among mothers aged 18 to 39 in Grassy Narrows was considerably higher compared with that of other First Nations in Canada.
Suicide attempts higher among Grassy Narrows girls
The study also revealed that older girls were particularly impacted by mercury exposure across generations: Of the 34 girls aged 12 to 17 studied by Mergler and her colleagues, 41 per cent had attempted suicide, compared to about 11 per cent of the boys of the same age group.
Mergler said she and co-authors Aline Philibert, Myriam Fillion and Da Silva conducted the study using data from a 2016-17 Grassy Narrows-led community health assessment as well as biomonitoring data collected by federal governments from hair and blood samples of Grassy Narrows residents between 1970 and 1997.
Prior to 1970, no suicide had ever been recorded in Grassy Narrows, a community of about 1,500 people, the new study said. “I am proud of our kids and our youth who accomplish so much in such hard circumstances. But we need more support so that they can thrive like other children in Canada,” Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle said in response to the new study.
Turtle is calling on the federal and provincial governments to compensate everyone in Grassy Narrows so they can have their basic needs met. “It is hard to improve our mental health while we struggle with intense poverty,” Chief Turtle said.
Mergler has been studying the impacts of mercury on the Indigenous community for years.
A 2016 report written by Mergler examined the umbilical cord blood of at least 300 Grassy Narrows and Whitedog newborns between 1978 and 1992 and found the mercury levels in the cord blood were high enough to affect brain development.
By 2016, more than 90 per cent of the adult population of Grassy Narrows had been born since the beginning of the mercury dumping.
Some of the newborns from the cord blood study period would now be parents to children and youth who struggle with increased risks of suicide attempts.
Ontario promised to get to the bottom of alleged mercury dumps upstream from Grassy Narrows. Instead, the province allowed a surge in mining claims on the Indigenous territory
‘I started to have seizures at the age of 2.’ Ontario residents describe the ravages of mercury exposure
New mercury care home urgently needed
Mergler noted that the new study had its limitations due to the small population in the community and little available information on the grandparents and the mothers’ early childhood experience.
Between 2020 and 2021, the federal government and Grassy Narrows signed deals amounting to nearly $90 million to build a mercury care home to provide services to those dealing with impacts of mercury poisoning.
The construction of the facility — which was originally expected to open in 2023 — is now slated to begin in spring 2024, according to Grassy Narrows officials.
“Mental health issues have gone unrecognized for decades and today should occupy a central place in healing from mercury poisoning,” Mergler said, adding that construction of the care home should proceed “as quickly as possible and we should not drag our feet on this.”
In a meeting with Chief Turtle this spring, Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu made a commitment to provide the full funding for construction of the care home on an urgent basis.
If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, there is help. Resources are available online at crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566, or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.
Sheila Wang is a York Region-based investigative reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org