Faculty Focus


Building trust, helping people

Building trust, helping people

Jones at the mass specrometer that measures environmental contaminants in samples. Photo by David Stobbe

By Derrick Kunz

Paul Jones knew he needed more than altruism and a research grant to help people in northern communities.

Good intentions don’t get you very far. When Paul Jones, associate professor with both the University of Saskatchewan’s School of Environment and Sustainability and the Toxicology Centre, was preparing to do his research along the Slave River to investigate reports of fish deformities, he knew he needed more than altruism and a research grant to help people in northern communities.

Fishers along the river that runs through the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta— including Fort Chipewyan, Fort Smith and Fort Resolution First Nations reserves—who rely on the river system for their food, as well as their economic and cultural well-being, had concerns about what was ending up in their nets and eventually on their plates. “There were accounts of deformed or unhealthy fish, fish with lesions or tumors,” said Jones. Health concerns, particularly cancer rates, in these communities had people pointing to the river, the fish, and impacts of upstream activities like dams and oil sands development as the culprits.

“Anytime there is a chance of a contaminated food supply it warrants study. So we looked at things like length, weight and reproductive status to try and determine if it’s a population of healthy fish.” Jones explained doing community-based research is all about trust. “There are ‘parachute scientists’ that come in, get their samples, and are never seen again. Trusting relationships take time. We didn’t have the relationships when we first started, so we worked closely with territorial agencies and other local partners that did have strong relationships with the communities.”

Two years and half-a-dozen trips later, almost 2,000 fish have been sampled. “People in these communities have a huge economic and cultural connection to these waters, so it’s important that we work in collaboration with them.” Local fishers catch the fish, Jones gathers data and samples for his research and the fish are then returned to those in the community who want them.

Observations to date show a relatively low incidence of deformity spread relatively evenly over the river. “One deformed fish makes front page headlines, especially in the oil sands area, but 10,000 normal fish don’t make headlines,” said Jones. Research is now focussing on blood samples to get more detailed information.

Jones’s relationship goes deeper than a partnership to gather data. Part of preserving the environment, people’s health and their way of life is education. “I give seminars, speak at community meetings and build useful partnerships. Samples are from their backyard, so I share results with the community before we make them public or publish them. They trust I’m going to be around and be there to help them.”

Working with partners such as the Northwest Territories government and the Slave River and Delta Partnership, Jones and colleagues at the U of S have recently been awarded funding from the Canadian Water Network to establish a longterm monitoring system that the communities will ultimately manage. Plans are to further investigate a whole range of wildlife such as aquatic insects, fish, water birds, muskrat and moose “that may be indicative of environmental change in the area. I’m excited to see the community-based monitoring program that will give insights into how we can manage the environment with community involvement.”

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You are what you eat

You are what you eat

Whiting with a container holding 10 teaspoons, the amount in a 355 ml can of pop. The vintage seven oz (approx. 207 ml) 7UP bottle doesn’t stack up against a 55 oz (approx 1.6 L) Double Gulp that contains about 40 teaspoons of sugar. Photo by David Stobbe

By Derrick Kunz

It may be a bit of an exaggeration but to deny the fact that what you eat affects your overall health is not only naïve, it can be dangerous.

Susan Whiting, professor of nutrition and dietetics in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, has spent over 25 years at the U of S studying human nutrition—what is good for the body, and what isn’t.

Some of Whiting’s earlier research focused on bone health—the relationship among vitamins and minerals such as vitamin D and calcium, physical activity, and bone health and strength. It seems reasonable to conclude the more vitamins and minerals your body gets, the better. However, Whiting explained, “There is an upper level of what we can safely consume. We know almost every nutrient is essential in the amount of the recommended daily allowance, but if you take a lot more you can get into toxicity.”

In 2011, Whiting and an Ottawa-based journalist successfully lobbied to have Coca-Cola Ltd. reduce the amount of vitamin A in its FUZE brand drink from the tolerable upper intake level for adults to the recommended daily dose. Too much vitamin A can cause liver damage in adults and may result in birth defects if women overconsume during pregnancy.

Whiting’s current research examines the consumption patterns and effects of sugarsweetened beverages (SSB) such as soft drinks and fruit drinks—fruit-flavoured drinks that contain little to no real fruit juice. “Canada’s diet is slipping into sugary beverages. We are about 10 years behind the United States and their childhood obesity problem, but the evidence is quite good we are headed there. There’s a natural experiment we can observe in their overweight and obesity rates.”

If looking to our southern neighbours isn’t enough to convince you there’s a link between SSB consumption and health, look further south. “Mexico has the highest rate of childhood obesity and the highest rate of [sugary beverage] consumption,” Whiting said. “We used to feel guilty adding a teaspoon of sugar to our coffee, but a can of pop has 10 teaspoons.”

The negative effects are twofold. “The Pepsi generation gave us a feeling [soft drinks] are a natural part of our diet,” but the extra calories don’t satisfy your body’s needs. Plus, the more SSBs we consume, the less often we drink healthier beverages, like milk.

There is mounting evidence the health implications—such as poor bone health and the risk of obesity—are particularly acute for children and women. Whiting is somewhat optimistic awareness is increasing thanks in part to highprofile occurrences like the proposed supersize soda ban in New York City. “It doesn’t pass the logic test, but at least it’s raising awareness that the supersize mentality of more-for-less isn’t a healthy choice,” she said.

Admittedly, it can be confusing to know what to eat and drink, and how much of a good thing is too much. Whiting points to Canada’s Food Guide as the best source for information. “It’s been formulated to ensure you get the recommended daily allowances of nutrients. I use it personally and in my teaching.”

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