The University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy has landed a $3.5-million grant to study the exposure of Native American communities to metal mixtures from unremediated, abandoned hardrock mine sites. The award from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities will enable UNM researchers to form the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research (Native EH Equity), which also will provide training and community environmental health workshops in collaboration with tribal colleges throughout the western United States.

Nearly half of the Native American population in the United States lives in 13 western states among an estimated 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines, more than 4,000 of which are uranium mines. These mines left behind vanadium, arsenic, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and other metals in soil and water. Such mines have received increased national scrutiny since August 2015, when three million gallons of toxic wastewater were accidentally released from the Gold King Mine, an abandoned gold mine in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

“With hundreds of thousands of these abandoned mines, we need to know how they affect this population,” said Johnnye Lewis, Ph.D., director of the UNM College of Pharmacy’s Community Environmental Health Program. “The Gold King Mine spill that released mixtures of heavy metals is a prime example of why it’s critical that we understand the health and environmental impacts of these abandoned mines to Native American communities at risk from exposures.”

In earlier research on the Navajo Nation, Lewis revealed a link between kidney disease and direct exposure to uranium and associated metals during the period of active mining. Her research also showed a higher risk for cardiovascular and autoimmune disease and immune-system dysfunction for those with chronic ongoing exposures to waste.

Tribal communities’ reliance on natural resources to maintain traditional diets, lifestyles, customs and languages often creates direct and frequent contact with toxic metal mixtures from unremediated mine sites, according to Lewis. This contact can happen through multiple pathways, including dust inhalation, drinking water and ingestion of food sources contaminated by migration of the wastes. Disparities in infrastructure—especially drinking-water supplies—exacerbate these exposures. Social inequities like poverty, limited access to resources such as regulated drinking water in rural and isolated locations, Lewis says, have been linked to disparities in health. But despite the potential for greater exposure and the potential sensitivity to the toxic effects of these metals resulting from risks such as these, the toxicity to tribal populations has not been well studied. Assumptions on toxicity are based on studies that haven’t represented tribal populations and yet have become the basis for cleanup decisions on tribal lands.

Lewis and UNM Associate Professor Melissa Gonzales, Ph.D., are leading the Native EH Equity research team, which includes community members, scientists and tribal staff from the Navajo Nation, Crow Nation and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, with support from Pacific Northwest Coast tribes (Micah and Nisqually), which will be actively involved over the next two years. Native EH Equity will provide research partnerships to answer tribal questions and infrastructure to link training to tribal colleges and mentorship of junior faculty and students working on these issues.

A major goal of the Center is to provide access to technology resources that will enable the participating tribes to work in partnership, not only collecting samples but also analyzing and interpreting the results. At the same time, the tribal partners are working with academics to improve academic understanding of tribal perspectives on health and the importance of tribal ecological knowledge in ensuring a more holistic approach to the protection of health. The result of the collaborations should build not only stronger and more respectful partnerships, but also a better understanding of how to integrate useful methods in Western science with traditional knowledge and culture to build a science capable of answering the many and complex challenges to protecting the health of tribal populations.

The Center’s work is based on long-standing partnerships among the academic and tribal partners. In the Southwest, Lewis’ team, including the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), has worked for more than two decades with Navajo communities and partners at Navajo Nation Department of Health Community Health Representatives (CHR) program to investigate the impacts of uranium exposures on Navajo community health. Currently, they are extending their research to determine impacts to future generations through the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, which also includes Navajo Area Indian Health Service and funding from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at CDC. This study is ongoing, and, while health impacts won’t be clear for some time, the results already show evidence that exposure still occurs, even in newborns and infants where uranium found in urine can exceed that found in 95 percent of the U.S. adult population. These early findings underscore the importance of working to build tribal research capacity.

The last uranium mines on the Navajo Nation closed in 1986, and, although the Nation has banned future mining, pressure remains to reopen mines. More than 500 abandoned mines remain, as well as more than 1,100 associated waste sites that are most often unsigned, unfenced and adjacent to Navajo communities. Yet it has taken decades for the first health investigations to begin. Team collaborators in the new Center also include research experts from the UNM School of Engineering and Earth and Planetary Sciences, the University of Washington, Montana State University and SRIC.