ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Researchers hope to measure the effects of mixed metals and uranium waste exposure on Native American populations living in close proximity to abandoned mines, and better understand how these toxins spread through the environment.
That’s the objective of the newly created Superfund Research Center at the University of New Mexico, which is funded by $1.2 million a year for five years from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
There are more than 4,000 abandoned uranium mines — some 500 on the Navajo Nation alone — and some 160,000 abandoned hard rock mines scattered throughout the West, and some 600,000 Native Americans who live within about six miles of those sites, said center director Johnnye Lynn Lewis, a research professor in the UNM College of Pharmacy.
“When you mine, the waste contains a whole soup of metals. We routinely analyze between 20 and 30, though not all of them are at toxic levels. Typically, the focus is on less than half a dozen,” said Lewis, who spearheaded the drive to create the research center.
Among the metals are arsenic, cadmium, lead, manganese, copper and of course uranium, “which as a heavy metal is more toxic than its radioactive properties,” she said.
In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40 percent of the West’s surface water is contaminated with uranium and/or waste from hard rock mines. Native tribes rely more on surface water for drinking, irrigation and livestock watering than other populations.