Dr. Mélanie Lemire is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre de Recherche du Centre hospitalier universitaire de Québec and has been involved with the Canadian Community of Practice in Ecosystem Approaches to Health since its inception.
Her current work focuses on the impact of selenium and environmental contaminants on adult cardiovascular health in Nunavik (Canada) from an ecohealth perspective. Mélanie also looks at the concentrations and bioavailability of nutrients (such as selenium) and contaminants (such as mercury and PBCs) in the Inuit traditional diet.
Mélanie was the 2010 recipient of the Exceptional Early Career Contribution to the field of EcoHealth. We interviewed her and here is our conversation where she reflects about her work, food, research in the Artic and the direction of ecohealth in general:
1) Tell me briefly about the ecohealth work for which you received the Award.
For my master’s and my doctoral studies, I participated in the CARUSO Project in the Lower Tapajós Region of the Brazilian Amazon. This research team has been a leader in bringing together researchers from the social, natural and health sciences to identify the sources, transmission and effects of mercury exposure in this region since 1994. This interdisciplinary work was carried out in collaboration with several Brazilian universities (Universidade de São Paulo, Universidade de Brasília, Universidade Federal do Pará and Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) and local communities to build viable and healthy solutions. Deforestation and subsequent soil erosion were identified as the major source of mercury in fish, the dietary mainstay of this population. In this region, high chronic mercury exposure has been related to neurologic disorders such as motor and visual impairment as well as cardiovascular problems. Discussions with women of the villages lead us to also study elements of their traditional diet which could influence mercury toxicity, and to examine social communication networks to better understand the dynamics of information dissemination regarding mercury and health. We were thus able to propose viable solutions and target different stakeholder groups to implement various intervention strategies.
My particular research focuses on selenium, an essential element and important anti-oxidant. My initial work showed that blood selenium levels in the region vary from normal to elevated. My doctoral studies identified Brazil nuts as the major sources of selenium in the local diet. Further work revealed that there were no signs and symptoms of selenium toxicity in this population despite levels of selenium that surpassed concentrations which are considered toxic. One of the new and important findings of my doctoral research is that in this population, which has elevated mercury levels, dietary selenium has a beneficial influence on age-related cataracts and motor system impairment. These are the first studies to provide strong evidence that organic selenium from the diet may be less toxic than other forms of selenium and a key element in offsetting some deleterious effects of mercury in fish-eating populations.
In our studies in the Brazilian Amazon, we have shown that through participatory methods, interdisciplinary research and attention to gender/sex and equity issues, it is possible to maintain fish consumption, promote benefits from local foods, and reduce mercury exposure and related effects on health. The success of these endeavours, which relied largely on the participation of women from the riverside communities, provided the basis for our research, which seeks to maximize nutritional input from natural resources and minimize toxic risk.
Between 2008 and 2010, I have been working in close collaboration with professors from the University of Guelph, the University of British Columbia, the University of North Vancouver, the Université de Moncton and the Université du Québec à Montréal to build the first Canadian Community of Practice in Ecosystem Approaches to Health (CoPEH-Canada). As the Quebec-Acadie-Atlantique node coordinator of CoPEH-Canada, my role was to create a dynamic collaborative network of researchers and graduate students involved and/or interested in Ecosystem Approaches to Health in the eastern part of the country and to strengthen communication and collaborations with other stakeholders such as the members of the scientific community, local and provincial organisations and the general public. I was also involved in the organisation of two Cafés Scientifiques and in coordinating and teaching at three of the CoPEH-Canada intensive short courses. I’m now part of the co-investigator team of CoPEH-Canada.
I’ve also been a member of CoPEH-LAC, a Community of Practice in Ecosystem Approaches to Health in Latin America and the Caribbean for the last 8 years. In this CoPEH, I have been involved in the coordination, organisation and teaching of the Ecosystem Approaches to Health in different events throughout Central and South America, and I have develop an extensive network of collaborators in several countries and with others CoPEHs.
2) From the Amazon to Northern Canada, what interests you about Nunavik?
The people! Both Inuit and riverside populations are currently facing very similar difficulties… They used to and still live from fishing, hunting and trapping; they have developed very deep interconnections with the surrounding ecosystems. They are also facing profound environmental and socio-political crises, contaminants and climate change, the rapid exploitation of natural resources, cultural loss or transition between generations, etc. Food insecurity is also very frequent and both are going through a rapid dietary transition towards a modern diet. Working in these contexts, I have learned a lot while exchanging and sharing with these kind, patient and welcoming persons. Instead of just doing research, I have made friends… They are my leitmotiv to promote ecosystem health approaches among our academic institutions!
3) One last question, as we move forward, what do you think should be the priorities in ecohealth work and research? What are we missing?
I’m part of a new generation of Ecohealth scientists. Born to be wild! More and more research grants and fellowships promote and require this interdisciplinary, participatory and equity-minded approach. By contrast, it is very hard to find a place for us as academics, since most of the university departments are disciplinary by definition. The currently budgetary scarcity that we are facing both at the provincial and federal levels in Canada is not helping the situation. We need to join our efforts to continue teaching Ecoheath inside and outside universities, and to put pressure on our institutions to foster a paradigm shift towards research and teaching programs that embrace complexity and that work in close collaboration with communities, collectives and the wider society.