Université Laval epidemiologist Eric Dewailly, a leading expert on the impact of oceans on human health, has spent much of his career collecting samples at remote locations and sending them back to a laboratory for analysis. For the past seven years, however, the multidisciplinary research team he leads has been doing precisely the opposite. It has sent the lab to the samples.
Dewailly describes the Atlantis Mobile Laboratory as “a powerful and adaptable tool for environment and environmental health studies.” It consists of six 2.4-by-6-metre modules devoted to chemistry, toxicology and microbiology testing, as well as storage, electrical generation and accommodation — all housed under a large tentlike structure. The lab moves from place to place by road, sea or air.
Built at a cost of about $2.5 million, the Atlantis went into service in 2003 and has been used for field research and testing at a number of remote locations in the Canadian Arctic and the Caribbean. Currently, Dewailly and teams of locally recruited technicians are studying microbial contamination of rainwater that is captured and used for human consumption in 15 Caribbean nations, assessing exposure to pesticides, and measuring food- and water-borne gastroenteritis.
Earlier research projects involved tests of heavy metals and persistent chemicals known as organochlorines in aboriginal communities on the shores of James Bay and in the northern Quebec region of Nunavik. The results were used to support better public health policies at the local, national and international scale. High lead exposure in children, for example, was associated with the consumption of meat contaminated with lead shot, but a ban on this type of ammunition proved effective at reducing that exposure.