A River, an Industrial Plant and Intergenerational Trauma

In the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario, 50 years after an industrial plant opened, youth are attempting suicide at shocking rates.


Since the construction of a chloralkali plant in Dryden, Ont. in 1962, the English-Wabigoon River system has endured environmental turmoil.

This plant, which produces essential industrial chemicals, began discharging mercury into the river system when it opened, which led to grave consequences for the Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek people (Grassy Narrows First Nation) and their way of life.

In 1960, 80% of households in the Grassy Narrows community relied on fishing and commercial fishing activities for income and food. In 1970, the impact of mercury contamination became tragically evident; high levels of inorganic mercury released by the chloralkali plant were discovered in the fish of the river system. This inorganic mercury morphed into methylmercury, a highly toxic compound that infiltrated the aquatic food chain. Mercury concentrations soared to nearly 50 times the accepted safe limit, standing at a dangerous 24 μg/g.

In the years following 1970, there were reports of suicide that were 3.6 times higher in Grassy Narrows compared to another First Nation community. Curiously, during the same time period, the Canadian government’s biomonitoring programs and researchers disregarded the potential link between high mercury exposure and these psychopathological issues.

However, a recent study — published in Environmental Health Perspectives and conducted by researchers from the Université de Québec à Montréal and Université TÉLUQ — set out to understand the intergenerational impacts that half a century of inorganic mercury exposure may have on today’s Grassy Narrows children and their psychopathology.

For their study, the researchers collected survey data from 84% of the households in the community, as well as assessed their mercury exposure. In the end, the study included data from 162 mothers and 80 children.

Startling results emerged from the study. The prevalence of attempted suicide among today’s youth stood at 41% for girls and 11% for boys. This alarming statistic contrasted starkly with reports from other First Nation communities. The study’s findings also indicated two potential pathways linking intergenerational mercury exposure to the increased risk of youth attempting suicide.

First, a link was established between the mothers’ prenatal and childhood mercury exposure which led to greater psychological distress in the mothers later in life — and in turn was associated with poorer mental health problems in their children. Second, maternal fish consumption during pregnancy, serving as an indicator of methylmercury exposure in utero, contributed significantly to today’s children’s poor emotional state and behaviour.

As demonstrated by the current study, the mercury contamination in the English-Wabigoon River system caused by the chloralkali plant seems to have affected three generations of the Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek people. The haunting repercussions on youth mental health within the Grassy Narrows community serve as a sombre reminder of the unseen price that environmental negligence can have on vulnerable communities.

This study is a good reminder that we need to safeguard our environment and become aware of potential silent toxins to ensure the well-being of both current and future generations.

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Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.