Environmental Health - First Nations Fall and Winter

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Your Health Outdoors. What you can do during fall and winter!

Your Health Outdoors

First Nations are intimately connected to the land and the environment. The fall and winter seasons are great times to appreciate the beauty and bounty that nature has to offer and are the perfect times for many outdoor activities. Being outdoors or on the land offers many benefits to First Nations such as exercise, hunting, fishing and recreation. As well, it is an ideal learning environment for all types of traditional knowledge teachings. Being outdoors is also positively linked to health and well-being.

Each community has its own unique geography, wildlife, plant life and climate. Your Health Outdoors is an easy-to-use guide with information about fall and winter environmental health issues. It also includes useful tips and a list of resources you can use so that your outdoor activities are environmentally safe and you can enjoy many fall and winter seasons to come.

What You Can Do!

This website covers key information for safe, healthy and fun fall and winter outdoor activities.

In this topic

Before You Head Out Into the Bush...

Spending time out on the land offers many health benefits as well as educational prospects. Much traditional knowledge is acquired and retained in the outdoors and bush. Spending time outdoors can be good for the mind and promotes health and self-sufficiency. Outdoor experiences in the fall and winter can be relaxing, exciting, healing, educational, soul-searching, and healthy all at once! Fall and winter are great times of the year for hunting and fishing trips as well as outdoor sports, all of which have positive health benefits.

What are the health effects?

Disorientation, personal injury and exposure

Travelling in the winter is different than in other seasons because landmarks you may rely on may be hidden by snow. You can travel across frozen water and the forests are generally clearer to pass through. As a result, you should be prepared for certain dangers.

If you are setting out for a trip outside your community, consider asking someone in your community who has lots of experience in winter travel, such as an elder, for advice including:

  • Directions/maps.
  • How to orient yourself without the aid of a GPS or compass.
  • Survival skills.
  • Nutritional and medicinal uses of plants.
  • Knowledge of the particular area you are headed to.

Elders can be a wealth of knowledge on many topics, especially outdoor life. You may find some elders in your community have spent most of their lives in the bush. No one knows how better to respect the land and be safe while enjoying yourself outdoors.

Tips - What can you do?

  • Travel with someone else or in a group if possible.
  • Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.
  • Ask elders and experienced individuals about the area.
  • Check the weather, including how cold it will get at night and the wind-chill.
  • If you plan to be gone for more than a day, pack a radio to monitor weather reports.
  • Look into taking a first aid course. This knowledge can be combined with traditional knowledge to be very effective in preventing and treating injuries.
  • Keep an eye out for wild animals such as bears, wolves and wolverines.
  • If you come across a dead animal, stay clear. Never handle or eat animals that are sick or have died of unknown causes.
  • If you own or can borrow one, pack a GPS or compass and a cell phone, satellite phone or two-way radio in case of emergencies.
  • Ensure that you have all the fuel, food, clothing, camping gear and water or water purification equipment that you will need.
  • Wear durable and warm clothes and waterproof boots. It is a good idea to pack extra clothes and wear lots of layers.
  • Pack soap or other hand sanitizers and wash your hands often.
  • To protect the environment, use biodegradable or traditional products when possible.
  • In terms of garbage, always carry out what you carry in.
  • Be sure all fires are completely extinguished before moving on.
  • Carry a First-Aid Kit.

Cold Weather

Cold weather brings a cool crisp breeze that chases away the heat of summer, relief from seasonal allergies, shorter days and the northern lights. Being outdoors in the winter can be a very invigorating and pleasant experience no matter how far below zero the temperature drops, as long as you are dressed warm enough and prepared for that first shock of cold! Cooler weather in the fall and winter brings many outdoor activities that many have been looking forward to all year long like hockey, sledding, and hunting, trapping and fishing seasons.

What are the health effects?

Exposure, frostbite and hypothermia

Recognize frostbite

Frostbite occurs when your skin and other tissues become damaged from exposure to extreme cold. If you get frostbite once, it can happen again much faster in the same place on your body. Severe cases of frostbite can lead to the loss of feeling and function of the frostbitten areas, which are usually fingers, toes, hands, feet or where skin is exposed like cheeks or ears. Extreme cases of frostbite can also lead to amputation.

Because diabetes affects the blood vessels it can contribute to poor circulation, which increases the risk of frostbite. Improper clothing, wet clothes and wind chill can also increase the risk of frostbite, so make sure to stay warm and dry with the right clothes!

Recognize hypothermia

Hypothermia can lead to increased vulnerability to exposure and other sicknesses. It occurs when body temperature drops too much. Symptoms include shivering, tiredness, not able to feel the cold, slowing physical activity and mental confusion. Hypothermia can be complicated by alcohol which increases blood flow to the skin, making a person feel warm yet increasing heat loss.

If you suspect you or someone you are with is experiencing hypothermia, you should seek medical attention right away. If the body's temperature falls below 35°C or 95°F it is considered hypothermia.

To reduce the risk of hypothermia, as you warm up while doing physical activity, remove layers of clothing. Your body temperature will drop much faster if your clothing is wet or damp from sweat after physical activity. If it drops too much, you could be at risk of developing hypothermia.

Tips - What can you do?

  • Learn from someone in your community how to build a quick shelter using material available in nature for protection from the wind and cold.
  • If your clothes become wet, change into dry clothes or remove layers to keep dry and warm.
  • Do not wear clothing and boots too tight because restricting the flow of blood increases the risk of frostbite.
  • Keep skin covered when outside on days with a cold wind chill to avoid frostbite.
  • If you suspect frostbite, only attempt to warm the affected areas if you can keep them warm. If the frostbitten skin freezes again it could cause greater damage.
  • Do not rub, massage or shake frostbitten areas and do not let them directly touch a hot object.
  • If you suspect hypothermia, it is important to slowly try and raise your body temperature. Too much heat can cause the body to go into shock.
  • Use sunscreen on exposed skin, as the sun can burn you even in the winter.

Hunting and Trapping

Fall and winter are a very busy time for hunting and trapping, which provides fresh meat and furs throughout winter. Hunting and trapping are popular activities, which have the added benefits of providing physical exercise and nutritious traditional foods for you and your family. There are studies that show wild game contains more nutrients and is healthier for you than store bought foods.

What are the health effects?

Personal safety and food safety

Hunting and trapping are excellent sources of traditional foods, which are highly nutritious and good to eat. However, some organs such as liver and kidneys should be avoided by children and pregnant and nursing women because contaminants may be present in unacceptably high levels. These contaminants can be harmful to the development of fetuses and children.

The use of lead shot while hunting will contaminate the flesh of the birds and other animals that are shot with it. Waterfowl have also been known to eat the spent lead shot that is left behind in the environment, contributing to high lead levels in their meat. Lead shot is banned for use in hunting in Canada, but it is possible that lead shot can still be found for use. Any concentration of lead is bad for you and wildlife and should not be used. Use non-toxic or steel shot which has been shown to be more accurate when using the right size.

To ensure an accident does not occur, wear bright hunter's clothing. Although not required for Status-Indians hunting on reserve, consider taking a course on hunter and gun safety. If you are an inexperienced hunter, this can be a good way to set you on your way to be a safe and successful hunter.

Being out in unfamiliar woods can lead to quickly losing your way or becoming lost, especially in stormy and unpredictable weather. Minimize your risk by checking weather reports, hunting or trapping with someone else who knows the area well, carrying or checking a map before you head out and bringing either a phone or radio to contact someone in case you lose your way or become injured.

Tips - What can you do?

  • Familiarize yourself with your First Nation's and province or territory's hunting regulations and guidelines as well as any other regulations that may apply.
  • Tell someone where you are going, and how long you expect to be there.
  • Wear durable, warm and bright hunter's clothing.
  • Use non-toxic or non-lead steel shot instead of old lead shot.
  • Clean shot out of the animal as quickly and as thoroughly as possible to minimize risk.
  • Do not eat, handle, or approach animals that appear to be sick, that are acting erratically or have died of unknown causes.
  • Even if it is cold out, wash your hands often when hunting and especially when cleaning an animal. An alcohol-based sanitizer can be used which does not require wetting your hands.
  • Do not rub your eyes, touch your face, eat, drink or smoke when cleaning animals.
  • Ask an elder about knowledge of the land; they just might share with you where the best hunting and trapping areas are found!
  • Refer to the other guides in this series for tips on food preparation.
  • Be sure all fires are completely extinguished before moving on, even in winter.
  • Do not startle animals that may be dangerous such as bears, wolves, moose, elk, etc.

Ice Fishing

Fishing can be a relaxing activity no matter what season it is. But there is something peaceful about ice fishing in the quiet of winter, or maybe with a radio next to you, and good company waiting for the big catch. As with hunting and trapping, ice fishing can be a good source of nutritious and healthy traditional food.

What are the health effects?

Possible contaminants in fish, food preparation, ice safety, injury and exposure

Mercury and Other Contaminants

Mercury contamination of fish can be a concern in some areas, but not all. If you believe contaminants such as mercury are a concern in your area, consult guidelines to find out which fish are safe to eat and how often. These are produced by provincial and territorial governments and from Aboriginal organizations or non-profit organizations. Generally, the higher up the food chain the fish is (usually the larger fish), the greater chance it has higher levels of contaminants, which accumulate from eating many smaller fish. It is important to remember that traditional foods are an important source of nutrients, the benefits of which often outweigh concerns around contaminants.

In order to limit the potential for further contamination of wildlife, carry out all garbage with you and properly dispose of it. While garbage is unlikely to contain mercury, there are many new chemicals and potential contaminants contained in plastics and other packaging materials that can be released into the environment. These contaminants can be absorbed by fish and other animals and may be harmful at high levels. You can keep your fishing area clean, free of litter and limit potential contamination for seasons to come if you take out all your garbage with you (and don't burn it).

Ice Safety

It is very important to be sure of ice thickness and stability before going out onto the ice, whether by foot, snowmobile or vehicle. At least 4 inches of clear, solid ice is needed to be able to safely walk on the ice, 5 inches for a snowmobile and 8 to 12 inches for a car or light truck. Make sure that you measure the ice thickness before driving onto the ice or putting up an ice fishing shack. This can be done using an ice auger, cordless drill or a traditional ice chisel. As a general rule, make sure that the ice is as thick as the length of your hand.

Because currents can change ice thickness even when it is well below freezing, check the thickness of the ice regularly, even if you are familiar with the area. Other factors can also play a role in determining and changing ice thickness such as water depth and even fish locations. Therefore, always exercise caution because even though the ice may be thick and stable where you are standing it could be too thin to support your weight just metres away.

If you choose to drive onto the ice, do so slowly. If you park, move your vehicle frequently so the ice beneath it does not weaken under the weight.

In addition, take care to wear boots designed to minimize the risk of slipping. Falls are one of the biggest sources of injuries among First Nations. Even snow can be more slippery than it appears, so exercise caution when you are outdoors in winter on any hard surface.

Tips - What can you do?

  • Consult consumption guidelines for fish in your area.
  • Fish for species that do not eat other fish or are lower on the food chain to reduce your intake of mercury and other contaminants.
  • Do not go ice fishing or attempt to cross frozen water by yourself and never do so if there is a question of the ice's safety.
  • Make sure that the ice is thick enough.
  • Move your vehicle frequently if parked on the ice.
  • Carry two ice picks with you so that you can pull yourself out of the water should you fall through the ice - these can be easily made yourself with a piece of wood and a few nails or screws.
  • Keep some rope handy in case someone goes through the ice.
  • If you have fallen through the ice, do not stand once you get out, roll away from the hole.
  • Pack a change of clothes so that you can immediately change into dry clothing if you get wet while reeling in a big catch.
  • Tell someone where you are going, and how long you expect to be there.

If the waters are still clear and open and you are heading out in a boat to do some fishing, please see the spring and summer guide in this series and Transport Canada's Safe Boating Guide for tips and always wear a lifejacket or PFD!

The Impact of Environmental Contaminants

What are the health effects?

Irritation of the lungs, eyes, or skin, neurological disorders, toxicity, cancer, birth defects, reproduction damage, developmental and behavioural effects, immune disorders, respiratory and circulation system damage, viral and bacterial infections.

Environmental contaminants are substances that are released into our environment through industrial, commercial or individual activities. Contaminants find their way into the environment by entering water sources, vegetation, air and soil. These contaminants can travel great distances before settling--sometimes literally from the other side of the world! Many contaminants stay in the environment and tend to accumulate with time. They can be absorbed by humans and wildlife through normal breathing, eating, drinking water or by contact with the skin.

All too often, sources of environmental contaminants are hidden from view. This is especially true in the winter because snow can hide contaminated sites. In areas you do not know well, a contaminated site could appear simply as a clearing. Such areas could include old military sites or garbage dumps. Stay away from these areas when possible to minimize risk and exposure to harmful contaminants. Other sources of contaminants are much more visible such as industrial facilities, burning garbage or waste sites.

Airborne persistent organic pollutants (POPs) tend to travel in the winds and accumulate in northern areas. These POPs land in the environment through rain, snow and dust that settles as the air and winds cool.

Other sources of pollutants are much closer to home. Fuel spills, such as from filling storage tanks and fuel tanks, represent an ongoing problem in First Nations communities. Such spills can render homes unlivable, contaminate the soil, kill vegetation and cause harm to humans from breathing the fumes. When filling any tank with fuel, watch your progress closely to avoid overfilling or spilling.

Burning garbage releases a mixture of chemicals into the air that have been shown to have negative impacts on human health and the environment. Some of these also settle in the near vicinity where garbage is regularly burned. Burning garbage yourself is inefficient and produces toxic smoke at breathing height. Do not burn waste, especially plastic waste, papers treated with ink or batteries.

Although it is necessary to stay warm, wood burning stoves can also produce poor outdoor air quality. Even just a few operating wood stoves in your community can have a measurable impact on air quality. Although all wood stoves will produce at least a small amount of potentially harmful substances, older, less efficient stoves produce more. Try to avoid spending too much time in areas where you can see the wood smoke in the air you are breathing.

When camping out on the land, inhaling smoke from fires lit inside shelters can negatively impact your health. Keep all campfires and other lit burners outside of your tent or other sealed structures to protect yourself from carbon monoxide and releases of contaminants.

Tips - What can you do?

  • Always boil water, snow or ice before drinking or cooking as some bacteria can survive in the cold.
  • Take care not to spill fuel when filling snowmobiles, vehicles, tanks and furnaces as fuel spills can seriously contaminate the area.
  • Don't burn garbage as doing so releases toxic chemicals to the immediate environment which can impact human and animal health.
  • If you burn wood for fuel, ensure you have a Canadian Standards Association (CSA) certified, newer (less than 10-15 years old) wood stove. It will be more efficient and burn cleaner.
  • Avoid areas known to have been military sites or garbage dumps in the past.
  • Do not harvest plants or animals near dump or waste sites.
  • Avoid nearby industries that release contaminants into the air or water as depending on weather patterns, they can affect you in any season.
  • Do not use any type of burners inside tents or sealed shelters.

How Climate Change Could Impact Outdoor Life

Climate change is affecting people across Canada in many ways but First Nations communities are expected to experience the worst effects. In northern areas, climate change has affected ice patterns, winter roads, growing seasons of plants and migration and habitats of animals. In southern areas, diseases typically found in the tropics and United States are now appearing. Therefore, it is important to understand the impacts a changing climate can have on your health and the health of your community.

What are the health effects?

Disorientation, food poisoning, food security and injury

In northern areas, climate change is affecting ice patterns, influencing the stability and safety of ice crossings, shortening the winter road season and melting permafrost. Across Canada, weather patterns are becoming unpredictable, which results in fiercer storms and large temperature swings. This is why people need to be more prepared when out on the land. As habitats are transforming, plants are growing in areas they have never been seen before and are rarer in traditional harvesting areas. Animal populations are changing their migration routes and times, and are now being seen in new areas. These changes can also affect the availability of plants and animals of cultural and economic importance and those that are traditional foods.

Warmer and shorter winters with fluctuating temperatures means less time below freezing. This impacts the storage of food outdoors, which, if the temperature rises above freezing, could develop parasites or bacteria such as botulism that could make you very ill. It also impacts winter travel with a later ice freeze-over and increased fluctuation in the stability and thickness of ice. It also means that ice can be more dangerous, which increases the risk you may go through the ice whether you are walking, sledding or driving. As ice frequently thaws and freezes again into a hard slick surface, it creates a slip hazard. Always take the necessary precautions in making sure that the ice is thick and stable enough to support your weight and that of any vehicle you may be in.

Climate change also has the potential to change your outdoor surroundings, even familiar traditional hunting and trapping grounds. Rivers, shorelines, plant species and other landmarks that have been used for navigation in the past can all change quickly over a few short seasons. It is important to share observations of climate change with your community as even if you once knew the land well, it can change quickly. It may result in an increased risk of becoming lost or injured such as when travelling down a river whose path has changed.

With changing animal populations and routes, it may be tempting to travel to new, further and less familiar places for hunting and trapping. If you choose to do so, ask others if they have experience in the area, consult a map and ensure you are prepared to travel through an unfamiliar area.

Tips - What can you do?

  • Be prepared and equipped for changing weather.
  • Ask elders and other hunters and trappers if they have observed any recent changes in weather patterns, animal migration routes, and water quantity and quality in your area.
  • Share your observations on changes to the environment with your community.
  • Monitor food that is stored outside to ensure it remains frozen or dry.
  • Encourage and support community efforts for the development of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.

Have a safe and healthy fall and winter

The fall and winter seasons are the perfect times to take advantage of the health benefits that are linked to being outdoors. Get out there and make the most of what the land has to offer!

Keep in mind that it is important to do what you can to make sure that the outdoor activities you value are safe from an environmental health perspective. Here are a few simple tips to make sure that the beautiful fall and winter months will be enjoyed by your family and yourself for many years to come.

What you can do

Before You Head Out Into the Bush...

  • Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back.
  • Ensure that you have all the fuel, food, clothing, camping gear and water or water purification equipment that you will need.
  • Check the weather, including how cold it will get at night and the wind-chill.
  • If you own or can borrow one, pack a GPS or compass and a cell phone, satellite phone or two-way radio in case of emergencies.

Cold Weather

  • If your clothes become wet, change into dry clothes or remove layers to keep dry and warm.
  • Learn from someone in your community how to build a quick shelter using material available in nature for protection from the wind and cold.
  • Keep skin covered when outside on days with a cold wind chill to avoid frostbite.
  • If you suspect frostbite, only attempt to warm the affected areas if you can keep them warm. If the frostbitten skin freezes again it could cause greater damage.

Hunting and Trapping

  • Use non-toxic or non-lead steel shot instead of old lead shot.
  • Wear durable, warm and bright hunter's clothing.
  • Even if it is cold out, wash your hands often when hunting and especially when cleaning an animal. An alcohol-based sanitizer can be used which does not require wetting your hands.

Ice Fishing

  • Do not go ice fishing or attempt to cross frozen water by yourself and never do so if there is a question of the ice's safety.
  • Fish for species that do not eat other fish or are lower on the food chain to reduce your intake of mercury and other contaminants.

The Impact of Environmental Contaminants

  • Always boil water, snow or ice before drinking or cooking as some bacteria can survive in the cold.
  • Take care not to spill fuel when filling snowmobiles, vehicles, tanks and furnaces as fuel spills can seriously contaminate the area.
  • Don't burn garbage as doing so releases toxic chemicals to the immediate environment which can impact human and animal health.

How Climate Change Could Impact Outdoor Life

  • Be prepared and equipped for changing weather.
  • Monitor food that is stored outside to ensure it remains frozen or dry.

Further Resources

Visit the following websites for more info and for further steps you can take.

Ask your local Environmental Health Officer and visit these websites for more info and for further steps you can take.

To learn more about environmental health issues and tips on how to make changes during fall and winter, visit your local health centre or go to www.healthycanadians.gc.ca/environment

Health Canada would like to acknowledge the support and participation of the Assembly of First Nations in the development of this resource.

ISBN: 978-1-100-20112-2
Catalogue No.: H34-218/10-2012E
HC Publication No: 120045

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