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Your Environment. Your Health.

Joseph Hoover, Ph.D. – Using GIS to Share Scientific Findings with Tribal Communities

October 15, 2018

Joeseph Hover
Hoover is also part of the University of New Mexico Superfund Research Program (SRP) Research Translation Core and, with the EHD Center the Research Translation Core, is working with Native communities to develop methods for risk communication regarding environmental exposures.

NIEHS grantee Joseph Hoover, Ph.D., uses Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to communicate research into easily understandable graphics. As part of the University of New Mexico Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research (Native EH Equity Center) Hoover is the co-lead of the Community Engagement Core and uses interactive tools to help tribal communities understand potential health risks posed by abandoned mines.

Hoover began using his background in geography to study environmental exposures and vulnerable communities as part of his doctoral research at the University of Denver. He assessed how GIS can be used to improve water quality knowledge and perceptions of GIS to convey water quality information to consumers. He found that interactive Internet-based GIS tools make it easier for community members to visualize water quality data in relation to where they live and increase their environmental health literacy.

“Geography has a very technical side with creating the maps and visualizations, but I’m also really interested in understanding how communities use this information and how we can make it more useful for them,” said Hoover.

Understanding Heavy Metal Contaminants and Multiple Routes of Exposure

UNM’s Native EH Equity Center works closely with tribal communities in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Montana, and South Dakota to investigate environmental health issues that disproportionately affect Native American populations. For example, in the 13 western states where the Native American population is most concentrated, there are an estimated 161,000 abandoned heavy metal mine sites, including uranium, cadmium, zinc, and others. Exposure to these metals through soil and water has been linked to chronic diseases such as cancer, kidney disease, hypertension, and neurocognitive disorders.

In 2015, the Gold King Mine Spill leaked heavy metal waste into the San Juan River. When contaminants enter a moving body of water, they can become difficult to track, and so can their health impacts. Fortunately, Hoover was able to use samples taken from the San Juan to create a series of maps illustrating how the Gold King Mine contaminant plume traveled downstream. These maps were crucial to understanding the flow of contaminants and where health impacts could emerge in nearby communities.

In a new health disparities study, the Native EH Equity Center is collaborating with Diné College and Northern Arizona University to examine potential exposure to metals through food. Animals that are part of traditional tribal diets, such as sheep and cattle, graze near and consume water from a watershed with abandoned uranium mine sites. Tribal members expressed concern about secondary exposure through consumption of the livestock and the Native EH Equity Center decided to test this exposure route as a compliment to data from the watershed.

map of geospatial imaging
Above is an example of geospatial imaging created by Hoover. Darker areas represent a higher concentration of abandoned mines in that area. He and his colleagues estimate that 600,000 Native Americans live within 10km (6.25 miles) of an abandoned mine site.

Hoover will use GIS and GPS technology to map where the cattle graze and how long they stay in certain areas. Then, researchers from other institutions will take tissue samples from the cattle and test for uranium and other heavy metals. “Understanding where the animals spend their time and what their movement patterns are will help us make sound recommendations to the community regarding grazing and cattle consumption,” explained Hoover.

Guiding Effective Research Relationships Through Collaboration

In June 2018, Hoover attended the Tribal Environmental Health Summit hosted by Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR. Researchers, Native community members, and students from across the country were in attendance. Tribal members and other scientists were able to share their strategies for effective research communication and relationship-building with Native communities.

Community-driven events, like the summit, give Hoover and the Native EH Equity Center the opportunity to discuss research with tribal members. On its own, the Native EH Equity Center uses workshops and community meetings to facilitate these conversations. Tribal members are given an opportunity to give feedback on the tools used to communicate findings to community members, such as graphics, artwork and newsletters. “It is so important to understand how the community wants to see the information, because if it’s not given in a way that is digestible to them, it’s not effective,” said Hoover.

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