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Your Environment. Your Health.

2017

Jani Ingram, Ph.D. –Addressing Environmental Health Needs of Navajo Nation

February 6, 2017

Jani Ingram testing water samples

Jani Ingram, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Northern Arizona University (NAU), encourages students and citizens in the Navajo community to collaborate in scientific research that addresses local environmental health concerns. Throughout the years she has made significant contributions in the research of carcinogenic chemicals in the environment, especially uranium, and its impact to the Navajo community.

Uranium Exposure in the Navajo Nation

Jani Ingram testing water samples

Ingram, who is a member of the Navajo Nation, first became interested in studying uranium contamination in the reservation in 2002. Uranium mining was a prominent industry in the southwestern United States, leaving a burden of uranium contamination throughout the region. Sources of uranium exposure include abandoned uranium mines, contaminated structures, and contaminated wells. There are 521 abandoned mines in the reservation, many found to have higher levels of gamma radiation than background levels. Investigating uranium exposure is critical for the Navajo community because a large portion of the population still relies on water from unregulated wells for their consumption, household, and livestock needs. Uranium exposure is known to damage the kidneys and increase the risk of cancer and liver disease.

Given Ingram’s past experience researching chemical contamination with the U.S. Department of Energy, she decided to evaluate the issue of contamination and health impacts in the Navajo lands with a goal of distributing information to tribal leaders to help them assess contamination. As an investigator of the training core at NAU for the Partnership of Native American Cancer Prevention (NACP) and director of the Bridging Native American Students to Bachelor’s Degree (BRIDGES) program, Ingram used her research to provide Native American students the opportunity to experience scientifically challenging research of interest to them and the Navajo community. “My heart and soul is in training students, and I’ve seen how passionate the students get and most importantly how it has encouraged them to continue their studies,” said Ingram.

Ingram is actively involved in creating a system of student empowerment by providing professional development opportunities while engaging the residents and tribal leaders of the Navajo nation. For example, undergraduates can engage in research programs during their first and second year, participate in graduate summer transitional enrichment programs, work with NACP investigators and NAU faculty, and attend seminars, presentations, conferences, and meetings creating a pathway towards a graduate program. “Problems on the reservation are going to be best solved by the Navajo students who help their community by going forward,” said Ingram.

Ingram and the students focused their research on three sites in the Navajo Reservation: Cameron, Blackfalls, and Leupp. They took samples from over 200 water wells, open mine sites, and sheep. In the unregulated wells they found high levels of uranium and arsenic. The results showed that the wells contained arsenic levels 40 percent higher than the EPA drinking water standard of 10 ppb and contained uranium levels 20 percent higher than EPA standard of 30 ppb. In livestock, they found similar uranium levels in the sheep from Leupp and Cameron. In further studies Ingram wants to include sheep off the reservation to have a better comparison group.

The unexpected high levels of arsenic in the water wells has led to a new study of arsenic exposure in water, soil, and livestock. As mutton is a traditional food in the Navajo culture, Ingram’s next steps are to work with the students and community to address the chemical contamination in sheep and to later develop food consumption guidelines in the Navajo community. Tommy Rock, also a featured grantee, is currently working with Ingram in examining uranium exposure and bioaccumulation in sheep near mining sites in the Navajo Nation.

Engaging with the Navajo community to transform her research into policies

Moving forward, Ingram hopes to use the data they have collected to influence behaviors in the community. She wants to apply the “bench to bedside” concept to the people in the Navajo community, which in medical practice refers to applying data from scientific research to patients. In order to assess health impacts through this concept, Ingram and colleagues primarily use the Indigenous Health Indicator, which uses “a holistic approach” by taking into consideration the cultural and social beliefs most important to Native Americans. They have worked closely with the Swinomish tribe, who developed the Indigenous Health Indicator, to discuss their past experience with contamination in their traditional foods and how they overcame and tackled the issue.

Ingram and her colleagues are beginning to speak with different individuals and groups, to acquire further knowledge on the Navajo culture that can be later implemented into the best practices that will help the nation address its health needs. For example, she is collaborating with a political scientist from the Applied Indigenous Studies and Politics & International Affairs programs at NAU, a Navajo doctoral student, and a group of knowledge holders, or “medicine men,” to learn more about how people in the Navajo community would like to approach the issue of arsenic exposure, to then establish the policies based on indigenous knowledge and Navajo law.

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Tommy Rock – Exposing Years of Uranium Water Contamination in a Navajo Community

January 9, 2017

Tommy Rock, a doctoral student at Northern Arizona University, grew up in a small community on the Navajo reservation, where he saw firsthand the effects of uranium mining on his relatives. Navajo lands were mined heavily for uranium from 1944 to 1986, leaving more than 500 abandoned uranium mine sites and elevated levels of radiation in homes and drinking water sources.

“My grandfather was a former uranium mine worker who died from cancer about ten years ago,” said Rock. “I wanted to do something about this problem of uranium contamination, and as I learned more and became involved in research, I realized more communities across the Navajo Nation were also affected.”

After completing a master's degree in sustainable communities from Northern Arizona University in 2008, Rock worked as a research scientist at the University of New Mexico and then as an environmental specialist with the Navajo Nation EPA. He is now pursuing a doctorate in Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability at Northern Arizona University.

Last year, Rock helped discover more than a decade of uranium contamination in the drinking water of the small community of Sanders in eastern Arizona. Sanders lies just outside of the Navajo reservation, and about 80 percent of the community is Navajo.

Uranium in the water supply

Through his work with the Northern Arizona University Center for American Indian Resilience (CAIR), Rock shows community members from Cameron, Arizona, how environmental samples are processed in the lab

Through his work with the Northern Arizona University Center for American Indian Resilience (CAIR), Rock shows community members from Cameron, Arizona, how environmental samples are processed in the lab.
(Photo courtesy of CAIR)

Rock discovered the contamination while working on a project funded by an EPA Environmental Justice Grant. The project involved testing unregulated wells along the Puerco River, a tributary of the Little Colorado River that flows through Sanders. Rock and his colleagues organized a two-day training for the community and hired community workers to conduct the water testing.

"When conducting this training, one of the community members asked us to sample the public water supply,” said Rock. “We did this, and found elevated levels of uranium in the wells along the river as well as in the pubic water sources."

The results, which came back in June of 2015, showed uranium levels at 43 parts per billion, well above the EPA limit of 30 parts per billion. Exposure to uranium in drinking water can lead to bone cancer and impaired kidney function. When Rock and his colleagues looked deeper to figure out how long the contamination had been taking place, they found records indicating elevated levels of uranium as far back as 2003. All the tests from 2009 to 2015 showed elevated levels of uranium in the public water.

“The sad thing was that the community members were not notified about the contamination by the state or the Arizona Windsong Water Company, which supplied the water,” said Rock. “The water company violated the federal Safe Water Drinking Act by not giving reports to their customers.”

The researchers presented their findings at several community meetings, and while people stopped using the public water, they were not seeing any movement by the state or water company to fix the contamination. During one of these meetings, community members asked the researchers to test the well that supplies water to the elementary and middle schools. “We found elevated uranium in this water supply as well,” said Rock. “The school district shut off water fountains in the schools and started hauling in water from another town.”

Igniting Change

Rock worked with Karletta Chief, Ph.D., from the University of Arizona to gather water and sediment samples after the Gold King Mine Spill, which affected many Navajo communities.

Rock worked with Karletta Chief, Ph.D., from the University of Arizona to gather water and sediment samples after the Gold King Mine Spill, which affected many Navajo communities.
(Photo courtesy of Karletta Chief)

It was not until after media coverage of the contamination in April 2016 that the people of Sanders finally saw actions aimed at fixing the problem. After Windsong’s license was not renewed, the new company handling the Sander’s public water system replaced the well that supplies the public water. While some people are using the new water, the entire water system still needs to be upgraded since the water infrastructure is old in the community of Sanders and cannot handle the full pressure from the new waterline.

Although the state isn’t required to notify people of contamination, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has changed its policy and will now issue public notices for drinking water violations if the public water system neglects to do so. “I like to think that we helped change this policy,” said Rock. “I am also glad to know I played a part in helping the community of Sanders have better water now than they did before.”

Rock continues to work on his dissertation research, which is examining uranium exposure and bioaccumulation in sheep living around mining sites on Navajo land. By understanding how this traditional indigenous food source accumulates uranium, Rock hopes to develop safe consumption recommendations for tribal members in mining-affected areas. This research project is led by Jani Ingram, Ph.D., of Northern Arizona University, who is funded by the NIEHS through the Native American Research Centers for Health.

After completing his doctoral degree, Rock would like to use his knowledge and experience to help people in other parts of the world. “One day I would like to work for the World Health Organization, so I could help indigenous populations throughout the world find solutions to their contamination problems.”

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