Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Navajo Nation residents have long been exposed to uranium, arsenic and other heavy metals in drinking water and soil.
Now the “Thinking Zinc” clinical trial led by University of New Mexico researchers is studying whether dietary zinc supplements can help repair metals-induced damage in Navajo participants.
“We know from molecular and cellular and animal studies that both arsenic and uranium can displace zinc in proteins that function in immune responses, as well as DNA repair processes,” said Dr. Debra MacKenzie, deputy director of UNM’s Community Environmental Health Program. “And these are two areas that we’ve seen where metals can cause defects.”
The study is monitoring participants before and after they take supplemental zinc for at least six months. Researchers will look for changes in immune responses or ability to repair DNA damage.
MacKenzie said participants include about 40 people from the Red Water Pond Road area. The community neighbors the Church Rock uranium mine, which in 1979 had a massive spill that contaminated the Rio Puerco and groundwater, prompting the ongoing federal cleanup.
“It’s an exciting study,” MacKenzie said. “We are trying to find a way to apply what we know to reduce health effects in a way that is not detrimental. It’s not a drug, it’s just restoring balance in the body.”
Previous UNM studies show heavy metals exposure is not consistent across all areas of the Navajo Nation, and has changed from generation to generation, said Dr. Johnnye Lewis. For example, some regions now rely less on unregulated water wells and some participants register little to no uranium exposure.
“The chronic inflammation we see and area clinicians have seen … can contribute to the development of a lot of chronic diseases,” said Lewis, director of the UNM METALS Superfund Research Program Center.
Heavy metals exposure can increase susceptibility to infection, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. The UNM team collaborates with the Navajo Area Indian Health Service and Navajo Community Health Representatives to share health findings.
Work on the zinc study has been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected the Navajo Nation and other tribal communities.
“One of the reasons the zinc study is so exciting is that we can get tired of walking into a community and just telling people about our findings and the health disparities that they should worry about, and not be able to give people something concrete,” Lewis said. “Now, we can offer something that might help.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.