Uranium Link To Kidney Ailments In 'Navajo Uranium Assessment'
CHURCHROCK – Preliminary modeling and statistical analysis of the first 400 people participating in the Navajo Uranium Assessment and Kidney Health Project has shown two significant factors linking environmental exposure to uranium and kidney disease.
Chris Shuey of Southwest Information Research Center in Albuquerque said the study, which is evaluating kidney health in 20 chapters of the Navajo Nation, is something of a replication of studies done in Canada, Finland and Russia, however, the Navajo project is by far the largest.
“There's none that have come close to 1,300 in the pool of people,” he said. So far, information from the first 400 people surveyed, coupled with soil and water data, has turned up six factors that are seen as statistically significant.
“A couple of them are pretty easy to explain – existing disease status and body mass index. But two of them are environmental. One of them is living within .8 kilometers of a waste dump, which we are here,” Shuey said, speaking in front of the home of Teddy Nez in Northeast Churchrock, “and having a history of coming in contact with uranium waste.”
Shuey spoke of the survey results during a tour of former uranium mine sites Friday with New Mexico Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.
This is the first time that any population-based epidemiological study has shown a relationship between environmental exposures and kidney disease, according to Shuey. “We can separate the damage caused by heavy metals like uranium from the damage caused by lifestyles.”
The first results were discussed in an American Public Health Association meeting last November. There are two papers awaiting publication in peer-review journals. “This is all going to come out sometime later this year,” Shuey said.
Johnnye L. Lewis, Ph.D., director of the Community Environmental Health Program, University of New Mexico, is the lead investigator on the project. Shuey and Thomas Manning Sr. of DiNEH Project, Eastern Navajo Health Board, are co-principal investigators.
Uranium mining operations in Eastern Agency have left a legacy of environmental exposures that, when coupled with naturally occurring uranium, has raised concerns that significant exposures may be occurring through the use of unregulated drinking water.
The prevalence of kidney disease in the region is substantially greater than nationally and occurs in younger members of the community than expected nationally, according to information presented to APHA.
Shuey told Denish that the Northeast Churchrock community was used as a pilot, with SRIC Navajo community liaison Sarah Adeky, and cancer survivor and community resident Teddy Nez among those administering the 10-page survey.
Questions asked included where they got their water, where they worked, how often had they been in contact with waste dumps such as the one approximately 500 feet from Nez's residence, did they eat sheep or animals that had gone across waste dumps, and do they have anything in their homes that came from the mines.
“We tested waters, we used soil data that we've gathered to put into a sophisticated exposure assessment,” Shuey said. Out of the 1,300 people to be surveyed, roughly 450 will be invited to participate in the full-scale blood and urine medical portion. Participation in the kidney study, which extends to 2011, is voluntary.
Soil sampling at the Nez residence turned up a high concentration of Radium-226, the most radio-toxic of all the uranium decay products, Shuey said. “It is a bone-seeker, causes leukemia and bone cancer in people.”
Before U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came in under the “imminent and substantial endangerment clause of the Superfund law” to remove the soil, Shey said, “concentrations of this contaminant in soils throughout this mine site and over here where we're standing now ... if it had been down at the tailings site, it would have been a violation of federal law.”
Edith Hood, a community member who testified last October before U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman's committee in Washington at a hearing on legacy waste, told Denish she is a survivor of lymphoma. “I've already gone through chemo, and I don't want to go through it again.
“A lot of our children of the miners – I'm talking about young kids – they have a lot of asthma problems with the lungs that we think may be linked to this (exposure),” Hood said.
Adeky told Denish that the children living in the area today feel they are being punished. “The kids told us that they are deprived of playing outside like their parents did and being able to do these things that their parents did before. When their parents were younger, they did everything outside. If livestock got lost, they'd be up there walking the mines.”
But now parents are concerned and cautious, she said. “There are some families that have moved out from here and other participating chapters. They're very concerned about the health of their relatives up here and they just don't want to move back in here because of the high contamination that is within this area.
“There are a lot of concerns and a lot of education that still needs to be done,” said Adeky, who has been involved in her grassroots advocacy role for the last three years.
She said it's difficult to translate the scientific language of the study, but “it's very important that we translate this into our Navajo language for the people, and that there's accuracy, and we are on the same page when we are communicating this information.
“All they know is that they have suffered from the previous mining and that the cleanup has not happened to their satisfaction. I don't think it will ever be to where cleanup is going to show that everything has been returned back to normal.”_
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