Arctic Health and Molecular Epidemiology

The Inuit peoples of the Arctic originated in Asia – which means that not only their lifestyle but also their genetic makeup differs from that of Caucasians (ethnic Western peoples). The Inuit have previously exhibited a special pattern of illness and disease compared with, say, Western Europeans; a pattern that has changed over recent years.

Chemicals from activities in the industrialized world are transported to the Artic regions by atmospheric airstreams and ocean currents, causing the substances to accumulate upwards through the food chain. This is a factor that affects the lifestyle and the health of Arctic populations, and its impact is expected to increase in step with climate change. If the Inuit population alters its diet, shifting from traditional marine-based foods in order to avoid chemicals, it may increase their risk of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and diabetes – all of which occur less frequently among Arctic populations than among Western populations. The Centre for Arctic Health is therefore monitoring the development of several diseases among the Arctic peoples, concentrating on the region’s special conditions and influences. Part of our research also looks at gene–environment interactions, and at the genetic sensitivity of the Inuit people, given that their genetic background differs from that of ethnic Western populations.

Monitoring lifestyle changes

Since the 1990s, the centre has monitored the health of Greenland’s people with focus on their particular conditions and the resulting effects. The knowledge obtained has, among other things, led to the prohibition of a series of substances. The centre is ever vigilant, checking whether new substances discovered in the food chain might constitute a health risk. But chemical effects are not the only thing we are studying. The social structures and lifestyles of the Arctic are also changing. That is why we conduct interview studies that monitor how altered lifestyles are affecting the population’s health. Looking to the future, the centre is monitoring mothers and their children, right from pregnancy and as their lives unfold. This long-term data will allow investigations to disclose whether exposure during gestation can lead to diseases later in life. Findings are also compared internationally (among China, Norway, Greenland, and Denmark) and examined at different levels: molecular, cellular, and in overall child development.


1. FETOTOX: Interaction between mother–foetus exposure to environmental toxicants and the risk of abnormal development. International interdisciplinary study (Greenland, Denmark, Norway, and China) funded by the Danish Council for Strategic Research (2011–2015).

2. EPAKT: Epidemiological assessment of the interaction between contaminant body burden, related xenobiotic serum activity, and health risks in Greenland. Funded by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (2008–2011).

3. BOC-risk: Does Exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) Increase the Risk of Breast and Ovarian Cancer? (IPY) Focus on Arctic Women. Project leader/coordinator. Funded by the Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland (2008–ongoing).

4. ACCEPTAdaptation to Climate Change, Environmental Pollution, and Dietary Transition. Establishment of a new Greenlandic Birth Cohort Study. Funded by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (2009–ongoing).

5. Time trend of Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) in Arctic and Danish women. Supported by AU research funding and the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (2009–2011).

6. SAM-TREND: Comparison of contaminant data in humans, fauna, and the atmosphere in Greenland. Funded by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency (2011).

The Centre for Arctic Environmental Medicine works with the circumpolar Arctic Human Health Assessment Group (AMAP); the interdisciplinary Arctic-Health and Arctic Sci. & Tech. research groups, AU; and research groups at Danish universities SDU, KU, and DTU. The centre also acts as coordinator of the international interdisciplinary project FETOTOX.

Scientific milestones

Perfluorinated compounds are related to breast cancer risk in Greenlandic Inuit: A case control study (Bonefeld-Jorgensen EC , et al. Environ Health. 2011 6;10(1):88)

Biomonitoring in Greenland: human biomarkers of exposure and effects – a short review (Bonefeld-Jorgensen EC . Rural Remote Health. 2010;10(2):1362)

Global DNA hypomethylation is associated with high serum-persistent organic pollutants in Greenlandic Inuit (Rusiecki JA, et al. Environ Health Perspect.2008;116(11):1547–52)

Relation between serum xenobiotic induced receptor activities, DNA damage and sperm apoptotic markers in European and Inuit populations (Long M, et al. Reproduction. 2007;133(2):517–30)

SPE-HPLC purification of endocrine-disrupting compounds from human serum for assessment of xenoestrogenic activity (Hjelmborg PS, et al. Anal Bioanal Chem. 2006;385(5):875–87)


The Centre for Arctic Health has expertise and experience in a variety of methods and technologies used for studying populations, measuring hormone disruption, and measuring cell stress and DNA changes.

  • Monitoring the accumulation of chemicals (POPs) in the Greenlandic population.
  • Determining biological effects of serum POP using SPE-HPLC fractioning. Examples of POPs: PCB, DDT/DDE, and perflourinated chemicals (PFCs).
  • Measuring DNA changes (methylation and broken/damaged DNA).
  • Epidemiological studies focussing on POP exposure, lifestyle, and diseases, correlated with reproduction, embryonic development, cancer, obesity, and allergies.
  • Comparative Artic exposure studies among Inuit, fauna, and the atmosphere.
  • Comparing genotypes among Inuit and Europeans.

Senior researchers