We frequently discuss our
impact on indigenous people as a direct comparison. We have isolated them, and we
have pushed them out of their lands. The point of this paper will be to view
our impact from another perspective. An indirect environmental one. There are
many untold stories, even in present day, of our actions creating distress in
indigenous people’s lives. An example of this would be by inadvertently polluting
their food or water supply. Our impact on the environment impacts them due to
their reliance on it. Food from the land represents the fundamental connection
between indigenous peoples and their surrounding environment and are an important
part of preserving their culture (Schuster, 2001). This paper aims to unearth
some of these untold stories and to find out what is being done to curb the
impacts we may have on indigenous peoples. This paper argues that indigenous groups
are at disproportionate risk to environmental pollutants.

One such
pollutant, mercury, has been shown to be a cause for alarm among indigenous groups
in the United States. Mercury exists in the environment in several forms and changes
from one form to another via environmental and biological processes. Of the three
most common forms that occur in the natural environment, elemental mercury,
inorganic mercury, and methylmercury, it is methylmercury that poses the
greatest threat to human and ecosystem health (Driscoll,
2013). Through a process known as methylation, elemental and inorganic
mercury are transformed into methylmercury. It is this more dangerous form – methylmercury
– that appears in aquatic environments (Roe, 2003).

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The aquatic
food chain plays a vital role in how methylmercury enters fish tissue. Fish naturally
absorb methylmercury into their tissue both directly from the water as it
passes over their gills and by eating other contaminated fish. Methylmercury
bioaccumulates in fish and biomagnifies through the food chain. Greater than
95% of the mercury that has been absorbed by fish is methylmercury (Roe, 2003).
Unlike other environmental contaminants that bind to the fat layer in fish,
methylmercury binds to fish protein, making it impossible to remove
contaminated portions. Mercury levels are also not reduced by cooking. Instead,
the cooking process reduces moisture in the fish, rendering mercury levels in
cooked fish more concentrated than in their raw counterparts. (Roe, 2003) The
main source of human exposure to methylmercury is large predatory fish and
marine mammals, as these organisms feed at a high level on the long aquatic
food chain in which methylmercury is readily bioavailable (Schuster, 2001).

Methyl
mercury exposure from consumption of contaminated fish is much more dangerous
than other forms of mercury exposure. When exposed to elemental mercury in various
forms, either in water, air, or food, the human body absorbs only 0.01%. This
contrasts with an absorption rate of 90% to 100% for methylmercury through the gastrointestinal
tract. Mercury has an extended duration period in the human body, from a
minimum of 50 days to more than 120 days (Roe, 2003). Long-term exposure to
mercury can permanently damage the brain, kidneys, and a developing fetus (Chan,
2000). In addition, methylmercury is a well-documented neurotoxin and is being
investigated for adverse cardiovascular effects (Schuster, 2001). Acute mercury
poisoning, such as that seen in two incidents in postwar Japan (Minamata bay
and Nigata), can lead to paralysis and death. Chronic exposure to lower levels
of mercury also results in debilitating health effects, including nervous
system and kidney damage and genetic effects. The toxicological effects of
mercury are now also being considered as a contributing factor for some cases
of autism (Roe, 2003).

Children
are impacted disproportionately when exposure occurs during in the fetal stage.
Mercury readily passes the placental barrier and concentrates to levels 30%
higher in the red blood cells of the fetus than in the mother. A pregnant woman
could be exposed to elevated levels of mercury and not demonstrate any
symptoms. Yet, her child, when born, could suffer debilitating effects from the
bioaccumulated mercury exposure. Pregnant women who consume contaminated fish
can compromise normal child development. After birth, infants are also
susceptible to exposure of mercury from their mother through breast milk. Because
of the extended residence period of mercury within the human body, and its
negative health effects on the fetus, both pregnant women and women of
childbearing age are additionally considered sensitive populations for possible
mercury exposure (Roe, 2003).

Mercury
is used widely in industrial processes and is a byproduct of the burning of
fossil fuels and solid waste. Mercury has been used in more than 3000
industries, from the medical industry to pesticides to battery manufacture. Of all
the mercury used in industry, 80% returns to the environment. Today, fossil
fuel combustion by electrical utilities and solid waste incineration are responsible
for 87% of anthropogenic emissions of mercury in the united states (Roe, 2003).

Because
of the cultural relationship to the land and an ethos of subsistence, Native American
fishing practices increase the probability of exposure to environmental
hazards. As a result, some native Americans are disproportionately exposed to
higher levels of mercury than other populations. Aboriginal fishing peoples
often have elevated mercury levels in their blood. This is primarily because
these groups depend on fish as a frequent food source. Indigenous groups who
fish in contaminated waters are paying for their culture with their health (Roe,
2003).

In addition to the cultural underpinnings
of subsistence that dominate some native groups, other groups of indigenous
people fish as part of annual cultural rituals. Annual fishing events, such as
those that correspond with spawning, are of critical importance to maintaining
ethnic identity. When confronted by pollution and a decision of whether to eat
the fish and maintain the cultural practices essential to sustaining their
ethnic identity, individuals are making a cultural assessment of risk and must
decide between culture and health. Giving up fish could mean giving up culture.
Risks from environmental hazards may be considered differently between native
peoples and western cultures. Perceptions of the invisible risks of mercury
pollution may be less influenced by scientific study than cultural
understandings of health and their relationships with the environment among some
aboriginal cultures. Concepts of the environment and risks of pollution are
connected to culture. Within this cultural context, environmental resources is
essential for cultural survival. The relationship that one has with the
environment, as in fish consumption, may be critical for cultural conceptions
of good health (Roe, 2003)

The Florida
atmospheric mercury study concluded that mercury enters the everglades through
atmospheric deposition. Such deposition largely results from the emissions of
coal and oil-fired electrical power plants, municipal solid waste incinerators,
medical waste incinerators, and coal-fired cement kilns. Mercury originates
from a nearby urban expanse (8 to 35km) with a population of 7 million people. In
the case of the Florida everglades, local sources of mercury released as vapor
are deposited via atmospheric deposition, resulting in high mercury levels
within the water and the fish. (Roe, 2003). Mercury contamination from atmospheric
deposition has severely compromised the aquatic habitat in the Florida
everglades. The deaths of several Florida panthers, an endangered species, have
been attributed to mercury poisoning, as have declines in wading bird
populations. (Roe, 2003)

The Florida
Seminole rely on the everglades for their cultural, religious, economic, and
recreational livelihoods. Just as important, ecosystem health in the everglades
is not only important to Seminole health, it is important to their identity and
culture. The Seminole suffer from environmental hazards in greater proportion
than other south Florida residents. This is principally due to their
relationship with the land and water. Many Seminoles depend on their
contaminated ecosystem to supply their basic needs. The Seminole survive by
eating fish from the contaminated waters and growing vegetables on contaminated
land.

Although
virtually all fish contain some level of methylmercury in their flesh, ranging
from 0.01 to 0.05 parts per million (ppm), certain fish are at risk for higher
levels of methylmercury contamination. Fish that live in waters directly in the
zone of industrial pollution and predatory fish are at greatest risk. For commercial
fish, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asserts that methylmercury which
exceeds 1 ppm should not be consumed (Roe, 2003).

Out of
the 655 watersheds in the United States containing native communities, 327
watersheds had average mercury levels above 0.16ppm, 128 watersheds had levels
above 0.5ppm, and 25 watersheds had levels above 1.0ppm. As a result, 59
reservations are at moderate risk for mercury contamination, 70 are at elevated
risk, and 19 are at severe risk.

There are
several government agencies that regulate fish consumption advisories in the
united states. On the federal level, the FDA regulates commercial fish, primarily
ocean fish, including swordfish and tuna. The Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) oversees fish consumption advisories for locally caught noncommercial
fish within the United States on a federal level. State-level agencies also
administer fish consumption advisories. In 2000, approximately 79% of all US
fish consumption advisories were issued, at least in part, because of mercury
contamination. Between 1993 and 2000, the total number of fish consumption
advisories for mercury increased by 149%, from 899 in 1993 to 2242 in 2000 (Roe,
2003).

The major policy implications from
this synthesis of existing mercury knowledge are (1) atmospheric emission and
deposition dominate anthropogenic mercury inputs and controlling these inputs
remain an important priority for national and international policy; (2)
releases to land and water are very high in some locales and more information
is needed on the extent to which these inputs circulate globally and
contaminate global fisheries via re-emissions and transport from nearshore to
offshore waters; (3) human consumption of marine fish and shellfish is a
globally important exposure pathway and should be more fully integrated into
cost-benefit analysis; (4) health effects to humans beyond IQ decrement and at
low levels of exposure, and the widespread effects to wildlife suggest the need
for expanding evaluated in risk assessments.

Mercury
is a local, regional, and global pollutant. Regional/local releases and/or
exposure of the local consumer and wildlife can be mitigated by strategies that
are gear toward the characteristics of a particular location. In parallel with
discussions to limit and manage mercury releases through an international treaty,
there is a critical need for coordination of local, national, and international
health and environmental agencies to develop strategies and technologies to
limit releases and exposure from local/regional sources. There is also a
critical need for observations in understudied areas such as the southern
hemisphere, the major oceans, and within the free troposphere. bioaccumulation
in food webs is fundamental to evaluating and managing human and wildlife
health risks (Driscoll, 2013)

The threat
of mercury is real and growing as each year. The amount of mercury we emit
accumulates on top of the emissions of centuries past. Emissions from the
largest contributors of atmospheric mercury, fossil-fuel electricity production
and solid waste incineration, can be reduced by more sustainable forms of energy
and solid waste management.