She dips the raw food she knows may be filled with toxins in soy sauce and swallows: cubes of whale blubber, slices of Arctic char and chunks of caribou meat. "Country food", as the Inuit of the Great White North call it, the bounty of the land that has nourished them against the cruellest of climates.
"We have few alternatives to the food we hunt as it is the same food through which we identify ourselves, binding us as family and community," said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, president of Canada's branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which defends the rights of Inuit in Arctic countries.
"We are the land and the land is us. When our land and animals are poisoned, so are we."
The seals, whales and walruses that are the staples of the Inuit diet have become deposits for the world's 12 most toxic chemicals, persistent organic pollutants that collect in the animals' fat and are passed on to the Inuit as they eat, or through breast milk.
Ms Watt-Cloutier has travelled the world preaching about the problem of a poisoned Arctic. Finally, she said, after nearly 10 years of fighting other people's pollution, Inuit people have won a small victory.
Next week, in Stockholm, more than 120 nations are set to sign a United Nations treaty that will ban countries from using most of the persistent organic pollutants, and provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries to reduce and, over time, eliminate toxins. The treaty also postpones a ban on the pesticide DDT until a substitute is found in the war against malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
"I wonder," Ms Watt-Cloutier said, "how we have created a global situation where mothers in the Arctic worry about poisoning their children through their very life-giving breast milk, while mothers in other countries rely on these same chemicals to protect their children from disease. This situation is not only immoral, but must be deemed intolerable."
To look at the snow and ice of the land and the clear blue Arctic sea, one would think that the Arctic is the cleanest place on Earth, that the smog and pollution of the big cities to the south could not possibly travel this far.
But "we've always said that the Arctic is just the canary in the mine", Ms Watt-Cloutier said. "It is only a matter of time until everybody will be poisoned by the pollutants that we are creating in the world."
The Arctic is fragile. It lacks the soil and vegetation that absorb pollution elsewhere. The chemicals known as POPs, or persistent organic pollutants, that travel north and stay include DDT, PCBs, dioxins, mercury, lead, benzene and tuolene. Often the toxins find their way into people. A 1992 study of maternal blood in far-northern countries showed that women from Greenland and Canada's eastern Arctic had the highest levels of DDT and PCBs, reflecting their diets of sea mammals, fish and seabird eggs.
Ms Watt-Cloutier said that scientists discovered such problems in the mid-1980s when they decided to do comparative studies in the Arctic, which they thought was pristine.
"When they came in and did testing on blood and breast-milk, they were shocked. They thought they had done something wrong in the testing," she said.
Scientists say the toxins can cause cancer, damage reproductive and neurological organs, injure immune systems and cause learning disabilities. Research continues to ascertain the actual toll on Inuit health.
Inuit hunters are also reporting abnormalities in animals: seals without hair, polar bears with reproductive organs of both sexes and seals with cigarette-like burns in their skin. Scientists say they believe that these may be caused by exposure to such chemicals as PCBs, which are used in electrical equipment.
Toxins travel in low concentrations in ocean currents, or in the winds, falling in places where they have never been used. "The DDT sprayed years ago is still with us," said Lynn Goldman, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University.
"Abandoned pesticides have been poured into drinking water. Poorly controlled incinerators produce dioxins."
More than six tonnes of PCBs reach the Arctic each year this way, polluting the waters and tundra. Because of the cold, the toxins do not break down. Miriam Diamond, professor of geography and chemical engineering at the University of Toronto, said that from the ocean, they move up a simple food chain until they reach high concentrations in the fat of whales, walruses and seals.
Copyright © 2001 Sydney Morning Herald