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Thursday, March 02, 2017

Epigenetics Fracturing Aboriginal Youth

"Suicide is not a traditional aspect of indigenous culture in Canada."
"This commentary raises the possibility that the effects of tetraethyl lead poisoning during the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the rise in suicides, and continues to contribute to the growing problem through epigenetic modifications."
New research paper on aboriginal youth and suicide

"I think it [1970s/80s gasoline sniffing among aboriginal youth] is a contributing factor [in current-day suicide rates], but I don't think it's the primary one."
"It's not just going to be one thing, there are going to be a lot of interactions between environmental risk factors and the biological ones, too."
Trehani Fonseka, leader, First Nations depression and suicide-prevention program, St.Michael's Hospital, Toronto, study co-author
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette   A cemetery at Attawapiskat First Nation, which declared a state of emergency over suicide attempts last year.

A newly re-discovered letter sent in 1973 from a scientist with Health Canada to colleagues at the hospital in Sioux Lookout alerting them to his finding tests indicated that gas sniffing had become a widespread practise among aboriginal youth, and it led to research findings and theories resulting in a paper recently published in the journal Psychiatry Research. The finding was that gas-sniffing as a source of lead poisoning was responsible for triggering genetic changes in the users.

And those genetic changes passed on through the generations, a process named as epigenetics. The scientists at St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto arrived at a hypothesis that neurological problems surfaced in the original sniffers' descendants making them more susceptible to depression and suicide. That theory is partially supported by the fact that indigenous communities had minimal suicide rates before the mid-1980s while at the present time their rates of suicide rank among the highest in the world.

The lead poisoning leading to genetic alterations, added to impoverished communities breeding in their residents attitudes of hopelessness -- along with family histories of mental illness and addictions, childhood abuse and the unfortunate after-affects of the residential-school era, when aboriginal children were removed from their homes and placed in teaching institutions whose programs steered them to a rejection of their heritage and toward European values -- constitutes a lethal mixture of social dysfunction.

"We're always struggling to find some simple explanation for complex, multi-factorial things. It's a mistake to interpret this (suicide epidemic) as some kind of inevitable consequence", stated Dr. Laqurence Kirmayer, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University who heads a national network on aboriginal mental-health research, and who seems less than impressed with the conclusion reached by this latest research paper, though it makes no effort to attribute epigenetics entirely being the sole fault in the spate of recent suicides.
An unidentified Sheshatshiu Innu youth openly sniffs gas in the community on Friday Nov. 17, 2000.
CP PHOTO/Ted Ostrowski    An unidentified Sheshatshiu Innu youth openly sniffs gas in the community on Friday Nov. 17, 2000.

Yet the effect of the past 30 years of surging suicides among aboriginal youth has transfixed the scientific community through endless discussions with no solution in sight. On a single day at the Attawapiskat reserve in northern Ontario last spring, eleven suicide attempts occurred. While in northern Saskatchewan there were six deaths by suicide among girls from age ten to fourteen, and another six suicides in 2014 in a remote Quebec indigenous community. A staggering loss.

A coroner's enquiry in 2010 stated that young indigenous people commit suicide at five to six times the rate of non-native youth, when it looked into 15 child suicides at the Pikangikum First Nation in Ontario. Thirty years ago the twenty First Nations in northwestern Ontario recorded one or two suicides a year in comparison, according to the coroner's office figures.

Tests in the 1970s showed lead volumes in gas sniffers of up to 85 micrograms per 100 millilitres of blood, when neurological damage is known to begin with levels as low as five micrograms. Dr. Fonseka allows that additional studies to test the hypothesis are required, and if confirmed the very presence of genetic changes linked to lead poisoning that occurred in earlier generations could provide an "early warning", identifying groups at risk of suicide so preventive programs can be designed in response.

Angela sniffing
"I think I'll never stop sniffing gas. I want the same thing to happen to me that happened to my brother Charles," Angela says. "I want to die the same way my brother died... while sniffing gas."   CBCnews

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