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Jamie deLemos Takes on Toxins on the Navajo Nation

Jamie deLemos Takes on Toxins on the Navajo NationDoctoral candidate Jamie deLemos is working with a team of researchers to better understand the health impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.04.07] In North America, many people think of clean drinking water and uncontaminated land as a birthright. For members of Navajo Nation, access to these basic needs isn't as easy to come by. An area the size of West Virginia sandwiched between Arizona and New Mexico, the Navajo reservation's austere land of buttes and mesas is beautiful but burdened by toxic waste. Forty years of uranium mining has created an environmental justice nightmare that scientists and researchers like Jamie deLemos are working to redress.

deLemos, an environmental health doctoral candidate at Tufts School of Engineering and a student in the Water: Systems, Science, and Society program, has been working with engineering associate professor, John Durant, and Tufts Public Health and Family Medicine's Doug Brugge as part of a large-scale project to understand the health impacts of uranium mining.

Uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation is the result of mining operations conducted during the boom of the atomic age in the 1940s through the 1980s. Many Navajos employed in the uranium mines were directly exposed to high levels of radiation toxicity from mining, but also indirectly from environmental exposures created by residual waste. As miners extracted uranium from the ore, leftover tailings-accumulated waste material from extraction and processing activities-open pits, and mine shafts dotted the landscape.

In July 1979, in Church Rock, NM, millions of gallons of low-level radioactive waste burst from a dam and contaminated the surrounding watershed of New Mexico and Arizona. Almost 30 years later, the U.S.EPA and Navajo Nation EPA are working to clean up these since-abandoned mines, and epidemiological researchers are assessing the extent of the health risk.

Although uranium is often associated with radiological toxicity, it is much more hazardous from a chemical toxicity standpoint. "Uranium is a kidney toxin. Kidney disease is three times higher among the Navajo (or Diné) people than in the general U.S. population," deLemos said. Her information comes from working on a large community based-participatory research project called the Diné Network for Environmental Health, or DiNEH project. Along with Dr. Johnnye Lewis, director of University of New Mexico's Community Environmental Health Program, and members of the Eastern Navajo Health Board, the project team has been studying the effects of toxic exposures on the Navajo Nation. Through work on this project, deLemos was named one of this year's Switzer Environmental Fellows by the Robert & Patricia Switzer Foundation.

As part of Lewis' team, deLemos uses her environmental health and geochemistry skills to address the extent of uranium contamination, to discover the chemistry that controls uranium transport in water and soil, and to identify areas at high risk for uranium exposures.In March 2006, deLemos and fellow graduate student Naomi Slagowski traveled to New Mexico to obtain 150 samples, including soil, water and vegetation from a heavily burdened mining area. deLemos and Slagowski worked with Tommy Rock, a Navajo and Northern Arizona University graduate student.

"Some people, because of the historical abuses-of which there are many-are not interested in letting you on their land," said deLemos. "They'll say, ‘How are you different other researchers who've come and done nothing to change things for us or never come back and report what you've found?'" deLemos worked with Rock who translated the language and helped foster trust with community members. "People automatically accepted him through clanship and his Navajo language skills;and when he was with us, we were okay."

As part of her geochemical assessment, deLemos worked with former mentor and geochemist Benjamin Bostick at Dartmouth College. Using a combination of laboratory and x-ray spectroscopic techniques, Using a combination of laboratory and x-ray spectroscopic techniques, she evaluated the chemical form of uranium in contaminated sediments and how soluble these forms are. "One state is soluble and one isn't," said deLemos. "And the soluble form is much more toxic.".

In 2000, the U.S. EPA issued the Radionuclides Rule, which set the maximum contaminant level safety standard at 30 micrograms per liter of drinking water. "What my data show is that when contaminated sediments are wet, the amount of uranium that dissolves into the water can exceed this rule by more than a factor of 100," said deLemos. "This has serious implications for contaminating groundwater supplies."

"People still haul water even if they're on a public water supply, either for cultural reasons, or because they prefer the taste," said deLemos. However, the Navajo Nation has deemed any unregulated water supplies unfit for human consumption, even though chemical and bacteriological analysis haven't, as of yet, been systematically performed on all wells. "All water sources that have been tested are given a rating with a stop-light system, and everything unregulated is given a yellow or a red light," deLemos said. "When people who are hauling water see this, it's a little confusing. It's hard for people to give up what they've been doing their whole lives-and when you can't provide them with an acceptable alternative, it's a real challenge."

Providing clear information, and possible alternative water sources, perhaps in an easy-to-read map, is the next phase of deLemos' project. "Historically, there's been a lot of recommendations and no offer of alternatives and no follow up," said deLemos, adding that in the past other researchers have issued statements such as, "‘We recommend that for your livestock, you don't eat kidney or liver,' but they eat the whole sheep as part of the culture," deLemos said. "Or ‘We recommend you stay off the banks of the river.' Well, that's like telling someone around Boston to stay off of 95."

After presenting her current research back to the community and at this summer's 4th Annual Navajo Nation Drinking Water Conference hosted by the Navajo Nation EPA, deLemos realized that Navajos need straightforward answers.

"People have basic questions: Are my livestock going to get sick if they eat this grass? Can I take water from this well or pond? You have to balance between cutting-edge science and something that's actually going to be immediately useful and relevant to these impacted communities."

Profile written by Julia Keller, Communications Specialist, Tufts School of Engineering

Homepage image courtesy of Chris Shuey, Southwest Research and InformationCenter

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