American Indian and Alaska Native communities experience higher rates of mortality due to cancer, respiratory disease and obesity. Research has shown that exposures to higher levels of environmental pollution have an effect on health. Scientists at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and Northern Arizona University have been working with indigenous communities overburdened by pollution and other environmental factors that contribute to health disparities.
[Photo: NAU graduate student collects a water sample from an unregulated well in the southwestern region of the Navajo Nation.
Recently, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded a $5 million, five-year grant to the UA and NAU to establish a research center dedicated to reducing health risks posed by environmental hazards in indigenous communities.
The Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research (CIEHR) is one of five new research centers jointly funded by the NIH and EPA. At the CIEHR, scientists from the UA and NAU will partner with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and community organizations nationally to study their concerns and develop culturally appropriate ways to reduce exposure to harmful environmental conditions.
There are 567 federally recognized tribes in the United States, with different exposures, cultural practices, community resilience factors and health outcomes. While existing indigenous health programs focus on clinical disease there is a significant gap in assessing environmental exposures.
“Unregulated wells pose a significant risk for chemical contamination of drinking water,” says Principal Investigator Dr. Jeff Burgess, associate dean of research and professor at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health. “Locally grown and traditional foods have tremendous cultural significance, but also can serve as major sources of chemical exposure. Also, particulate exposures from heating by burning wood and coal in the home is an important contributor to environmental health disparities among American Indians and Alaskan Natives.”
The research team will examine a range of stressors on health, including air, water and soil pollution in addition to environmental conditions related to housing (such as exposure to lead paint, asbestos, mold and radon) and diet.
The investigators will collaborate with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe to define research questions, recruit study participants and collect data. Once the data has been analyzed, the research team will work with the tribes to translate the research findings into information for decision-making and action.
“Community social and cultural practices and experience with past adversity contribute to the resilience of indigenous communities as they face environmental hazards,” says Dr. Stephanie Rainie, assistant director of CIEHR and UA assistant professor of public health. “The tribes can determine how to best strengthen community resilience and increase environmental health literacy to address existing health issues and prevent harmful exposures.”
The Navajo project will focus on the health risks and impact of contamination of traditional food and water. An outcome of this project is the development of a model that will support culturally relevant and community-created policy with respect to contaminated traditional foods and water that will be scalable to other Native American communities. The project is led by Dr. Jani Ingram, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at NAU.
The Hopi Tribe project will evaluate the risks to respiratory health from household air, water, food exposures from arsenic, uranium and particulate matter. A combined Hopi-UA team, in collaboration with a community advisory board and tribal officials, is conducting the research. Dr. Robin Harris, and Dr. Mary Kay O’Rourke, professors of public health at the UA Zuckerman College of Public Health, are co-leaders of this project.
Dr. Nicolette Teufel-Shone, professor of family and child health at the UA Zuckerman College of Public, is the Community Engagement Core lead helping to facilitate the tribe-university partnership for all CIEHR projects. Dr. Teufel-Shone has worked with Native American communities in the Southwest for more than 25 years, building and promoting community capacity to address chronic disease prevention.