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Your Environment. Your Health.


Paloma Beamer, Ph.D. – Understanding How Culture and Behavior Affect Environmental Exposures

January 4, 2018

Paloma Beamer and Karletta Chief

Paloma Beamer and Karletta Chief lead a study examining the long-term effects of the Gold King Mine spill on Navajo communities. Findings from the study will ultimately be used to develop risk assessment methods that incorporate how tribes actually use water and the land.
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

NIEHS grantee Paloma Beamer, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Arizona (UA) Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, is passionate about building partnerships and trust with the communities in which she works. Her research is helping reveal the importance of culture and behavior in determining exposure risks for specific communities. This knowledge could help inform interventions that reduce, or even eliminate, adverse health effects from environmental exposures experienced in these communities.

Responding to the Gold King Mine Spill

Ruby Sierra, Paloma Beamer and Arnold Clifford

Ruby Sierra of the Environmental Health Sciences Transformative Research Undergraduate Experience program, Paloma Beamer and Arnold Clifford take a core sample in an agricultural field.
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

On August 5, 2015, the Gold King Mine leaked three million gallons of polluted water into a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado. The water traveled into the San Juan and Colorado rivers, flowing along the borders of 12 Native American Tribes. Immediately after the spill, Beamer worked with Karletta Chief, Ph.D., and other UA Superfund Research Program (SRP) researchers to quickly create a fact sheet to help affected communities understand the spill and its immediate effects.

In addition to concerns about short-term effects of the spill, Navajo communities wanted to know how water contaminated from the spill might affect their long-term health. With NIEHS funding, Beamer and Chief began the research necessary to address these concerns.

The researchers worked with the Navajo Department of Health and colleagues at Northern Arizona University to design a study that included testing for lead and arsenic exposure in people living in the three Navajo communities downstream of the Gold King Mine spill. The researchers also measured these contaminants in the sediment, agricultural soil, river, and well water around these communities and will examine how the communities’ perception of health risks from the spill compared with the actual health risks.

Rachelle Begay, Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne and graduate student Corinna Sabaque

Rachelle Begay, project coordinator for Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research, doctoral student Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, and graduate student Corinna Sabaque prep field kits for Navajo Nation community health workers to use for household sampling. 
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

So far, the project has involved community members from 20 different organizations and academic partners from seven institutions. It Is also supported by several NIEHS-funded Centers at UA, including the SRP Center, Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, and Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research, part of the Centers of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research program. Study support also comes from the Northern Arizona University Center for American Indian Resilience, which is funded by the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Understanding Routes of Exposure

Tommy Rock and Janene Yazzie

Northern Arizona University doctoral student Tommy Rock and Janene Yazzie, an intern with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, sample sediment along the San Juan River. More than 70 students from ten academic intuitions were trained to work on various parts of the project.
(Photo courtesy of University of Arizona)

The researchers began by using focus groups to determine how Navajo communities use the San Juan river. "We have now identified almost 50 different activities that could lead to potential exposures if there was a concern about contaminants in the river water or in the sediment," said Beamer. "Because the communities use the river for much more than recreational activities, risk assessments need to take this into account when determining that the river was safe for use after a spill."

Throughout the study, the researchers focused on using approaches that build trust with the community. For example, they enlisted Navajo Department of Health community health workers who were already known by the community, to collect urine samples and reported back data to each household that provided samples.

The researchers have also received funding from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice to leverage the partnerships and findings of the NIEHS project to create broader and longer-term capabilities. They will be working with the Navajo community and leaders to identify tools and skills that might help them better respond to future spills or other environmental disasters.

Making Workplaces Healthier

Beamer, who began a term as president-elect of the International Society of Exposure Science in January 2018, is now planning a new study that will train community health workers to identify hazardous exposures in workplaces around Tucson, Arizona, and to work with the businesses to reduce those exposures. "Although preventable by definition, occupational disease and injuries are leading causes of death in the U.S.," said Beamer. "Unfortunately, low-income or low-wage minority workers bear most of the burden of occupational disease."

Beamer and her team will focus the study on auto repair shops and beauty salons. These types of workplaces, which have not been well-studied in terms of exposures, will allow the researchers to test their approach in two very different work cultures with different predominant genders. After gathering information about the businesses and exposures, the researchers will work with the businesses owners, trade groups, workers, and the community health workers to design an intervention focused on reducing the sources of dangerous workplace exposures. They will then implement the intervention in a formal clinical trial, evaluate its effectiveness, and identify factors that led the businesses to use exposure control strategies.

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