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Your Environment. Your Health.

University of New Mexico

Superfund Research Program

Community Engagement Core

Project Leader: David Begay
Co-Investigators: Christopher L. Shuey (Southwest Research and Information Center), Nancy Maryboy (Indigenous Education Institute), Paul Robinson (Southwest Research and Information Center)
Grant Number: P42ES025589
Funding Period: 2017-2022
View this project in the NIH Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tools (RePORT)

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Project Summary (2017-2022)

Tribal communities throughout the West share a common problem: metals mixtures are routinely released from thousands of abandoned uranium mines (AUMs) in short but intense rain storms and frequent strong winds, exposing the people who live nearby to uranium and other hazardous substances. Researchers now know that these exposures increase risks of cardiovascular, renal, and metabolic diseases leading to systemic immune dysfunction in some tribal populations. Therefore, measures are needed to reduce exposures, lessen waste toxicity, and reduce health risks from compromised immunity. This is the central purpose of the University of New Mexico Metal Exposure and Toxicity Assessment on Tribal Lands in the Southwest Superfund Research Program Center (UNM METALS).

The Community Engagement Core (CEC) of the UNM METALS Center links the Pueblo of Laguna and two Navajo communities burdened by uranium wastes with scientists examining ways to mitigate contaminant migration and understand how multiple-pathway exposures affect health, from the population level down to the cell where toxicity is manifest. Each of the communities is impacted by abandoned mines that represent the wide range of AUMs in the West - from the relatively small mines on steep terrain in the mountainous Blue Gap-Tachee community of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona; to the No. 1 and No. 3 highest-priority AUMs on the Navajo Nation near Gallup, NM; to the massive waste piles and pits at Jackpile-Paguate Mine, once the world's largest open-pit mine, on Laguna Pueblo in west-central New Mexico.

The indigenous people who live in close proximity to each of these sites have faced generations of chronic exposures but are unable to move away because, as one Navajo woman said, "we are culturally tied to the land." The CEC has forged long-standing, respectful relationships with these communities, and together the communities and researchers have made tangible gains in risk-awareness, risk-reduction, and policy changes that have elevated the mine sites and the impacted communities on tribal and federal remediation priority lists. The CEC is responding to the additional needs of the communities by:

 

  1. Developing a common language and understanding of environmental health and traditional ecological knowledge among community members and researchers through joint training programs; and
  2. Using community-based listening sessions to document community health concerns and research needs to inform prevention/intervention strategies that reduce exposures and mitigate or prevent toxicity.

 

UNM METALS research results will not only improve Superfund remedial decision-making, but will also raise the validity of indigenous perspectives on health in regulatory frameworks. The research has wide applicability to similar problems in other tribal communities in the West.

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