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Your Environment. Your Health.

University of New Mexico Community Environmental Health Program

Addressing Health Impacts of Uranium Mining on the Navajo Nation

NIEHS Grant: 5R25ES013208-04
Community Environmental Health Program of the University of New Mexico
Johnnye Lewis
jlewis@cybermesa.com

Project Description:

dineh-team
DiNEH team working the NIEHS booth at APHA: Johnnye Lewis, Thomas Manning, and Chris Shuey

Between 1944 and 1986, miners extracted nearly four million tons of uranium ore from Navajo Nation tribal lands in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. During this period, many Navajo people worked in the underground mines and suffered lung diseases and other health problems as a result of their exposure to decay products of the radioactive metal.

 

Unfortunately, the legacy of uranium mining continues to affect the health of Navajo people living in the area today. Many of the mines were never properly cleaned up, and uranium and other metals have leached into nearby water sources. Residents live among more than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines, mills, and associated waste sites scattered throughout the Navajo lands.

 

Although the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act acknowledged  several "compensable" diseases related to occupational exposures, scientists had never properly assessed the health effects of exposure to legacy mine waste in these communities.  In 2004, NIEHS began funding the Diné Network for Environmental Health (DiNEH) Project to build community research capacity and study community health. The project was initiated at the request of the Eastern Navajo Health Board and grew out of concerns over high rates of kidney disease among Navajos living in the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation. A major concern of the Board and their communities was that exposures to uranium were occurring through the drinking of unregulated water.  More than 30% of Navajos lack access to regulated water sources, and as much as 73% of the population hauls water even if they have regulated water in their homes. They haul water either for cultural reasons, because they prefer the taste of hauled water, think it is better for their health, or possibly because they cannot afford the cost of regulated water. Much of the water is hauled from unregulated and untested sources intended for livestock watering. The project was part of an ongoing effort to address the health impacts of uranium exposure among Navajo communities and inform policy decisions to protect residents from exposure.

 

Throughout the project development process, the scientific team has worked closely with the Navajo communities and staff to design culturally-appropriate research approaches, collect data, and communicate research findings. The team interviewed more than 1,300 residents, tested 130 water sources, and used GIS mapping to assess residents’ exposure to uranium and other contaminants. The researchers measured the health effects of these exposures using self-reports, health records, clinical assessments, and urine and blood samples.

 

The research findings have offered critical insights to the health effects of uranium exposure among Navajo people and helped identify opportunities to reduce these health impacts through improved health care and public policy measures. The project’s accomplishments include:

 

  • The project identified safe and unsafe water sources to inform community water planning and reduce uranium exposure. The project found that 75% of their Navajo participants haul water, many from unregulated sources. About 10% of these unregulated sources contain unsafe levels of uranium or other heavy metals.
  • The project linked exposure to uranium mines or contaminated materials with increased health risks. Nearly 1 in 4 residents surveyed reported playing on or near mine sites as children; many lived near a mine site, washed miners’ clothing, or used materials from mine sites. Living in proximity to mines and engaging in these activities were associated with a nearly two-fold increased likelihood of hypertension, kidney disease, and autoimmune disease
  • The team worked with the Navajo Area Indian Health Service to design a medical monitoring program for community members concerned about uranium exposure, and is helping to enroll community members while collecting blood and urine samples to identify early indicators of uranium-associated health effects. 
  • The project improved communication about the risks of uranium exposure among the affected communities. For example, the research team created maps showing potentially dangerous unregulated water sources and areas with contaminated soil so that residents can take steps to reduce their exposure. About 1 in 5 residents surveyed were previously unaware of whether they lived near a uranium mine site.
  • The project enhanced understanding of the health effects of uranium and other environmental exposures among Native American populations, who may be at higher risk for kidney disease, lung disease, hypertension, and diabetes than the general U.S. population.
  • The project team obtained additional NIEHS and HHS funding to continue this work with the Navajo community due to the groundwork they laid in this project. The team is now beginning a birth cohort study in cooperation with CDC. This work is the result of congressionally mandated health studies and responds to priorities set by the communities.

 

This initiative offered insights on the health legacy of uranium mining in the Navajo Nation and identified opportunities to better protect the health of those living near abandoned uranium mines.

  

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