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Researchers measure mixed metals mining contamination on Native Americans

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.

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Johnnye Lynn Lewis, director of the Superfund Research Center at UNM. Center will gauge the effects of mixed metals and uranium on Native American populations living close to abandoned mines. (Courtesy of UNM)

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.

Researchers will look at three tribal communities in the Southwest hardest hit by uranium mining: The Red Water Pond Road community near Gallup; the BlueGap/Tachee Chapter in northeastern Arizona; and Laguna Pueblo, formerly home to the nation’s largest open pit uranium mine.

Where possible, they will design interventions to stabilize the waste at the sites.

While there has already been research on how a single metal can affect human toxicity, there has been little research on the health effects of multiple metals, something that needs to be addressed because of the large numbers of Native Americans who have been exposed, Lewis said.

Among the health concerns resulting from toxic exposure are damage to a person’s DNA, damage to a person’s immunological system, and damage to a person’s neurological development, something already known from exposure to lead and mercury.

In addition, researchers are hoping to develop an early warning system for days when environmental factors may increase exposure, Lewis said. That may include, in part, determining the size of the particles in which the metals are bound, how easily the particles are mobilized by the wind, and direction and moisture content of the wind with respect to the location of the waste sites.

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