This page provides general background on the Faroe Islands and highlights the advantages of research in environmental epidemiology at this setting.

The Faroe Islands are located in the North Atlantic, northwest of Shetland, in between Iceland and Norway. The islands form a self-governing part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The population is of Nordic origin, and currently about 50,000 people reside on a dozen of the islands covering an area of 1400 square kilometers (slightly less than 550 square miles). The people are highly dependent on seafood, with 44% of dinner meals being based on fish. The Faroese also eat from the top of the marine food chains. The tradition of driving pods of pilot whales ashore at designated beaches constitutes subsistence whaling approved by the International Whaling Commission. The whale meat and blubber are shared locally. This traditional part of the diet depends on local availability and personal preferences, though not on socioeconomic factors such as income. Apart from lamb, potatoes and some dairy products, the majority of the food is otherwise imported from Europe. Elevated exposures to methylmercury and persistent organic pollutants mainly originates from marine mammals and sea birds, while other (less important) sources are similar to Scandinavian levels. Thus, apart from the consumption of pilot whales and the reliance on seafood in general, the lifestyle is entirely Western. In contrast to other whale-eating populations, such as the Inuit, the Faroese are therefore comparable to many Western populations.

Three reasons that the Faroes constitute a highly useful setting for research

Range of exposures: The average dietary exposure to methylmercury, PCBs and other persistent organochlorine compounds is higher than in most other populations. In addition, exposures range by more than 100-fold, so that the lowest exposures constitute a built-in control group. Methylmercury and perfluorinated compounds accumulate in the lean whale meat. In contrast, PCBs and other lipophilic substances are concentrated in blubber. Thus, highly elevated exposures occur in Faroese who have frequently eaten whale in the past.

Socioeconomic factors are of little importance due to the social homogeneity and the Nordic-type health care system. Faroese women traditionally drink very little alcohol, especially during pregnancy. The proportion of teetotalers is the highest in the Nordic countries.

Feasibility of research: Previous work in this population has achieved a 90% participation at follow-up of children at age 7 years, an indication of unique support by the community. In recent years, young families have tended to move abroad for education or job purposes.