By Cindy Foster

Winds of Change: UNM Research Center to Study Mixed Metal and Uranium Exposure on Tribal Lands

University of New Mexico scientists are launching the nation's first Superfund Research Center dedicated to studying the toxic effects of mixed metal and uranium exposure on tribal communities in the Southwest.

Researchers will gauge the health impacts on Native Americans exposed to mixed metal and uranium waste while gaining a better understanding of how these metals move through the environment, said center director Johnnye Lewis, PhD, research professor in the UNM College of Pharmacy.

The center, funded through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), will also explore strategies for risk reduction, Lewis said.

There are more than 4,000 uranium mines and some 160,000 abandoned hard rock mines scattered throughout the West, and some 600,000 Native Americans live within 10 kilometers of those sites, Lewis said.

"There is a lot of research on how one metal affects toxicity, but very little understanding as to how they work together and how they together impact populations that have a lot more exposure with the land," she said. "That has never been addressed. Yet none of the residents near those sites are being exposed to the harmful effects of just one metal."

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 40 percent of the West's surface water is contaminated with uranium, yet tribes rely more on surface water than other populations, Lewis said. "They look to it for drinking water, irrigation and livestock watering."

The new research center will focus on three of the tribal communities most visibly harmed by uranium mining in the Southwest: the Red Water Pond Road community on the Navajo Nation near Gallup, home to the nation's largest underground uranium mine and scene of the largest waste spill in U.S. history, the Blue Gap/Tachee Chapter in northeastern Arizona, a community that sits next to a 150-foot wall of waste material, and Laguna Pueblo, which at one time was home to the nation's largest open pit uranium mine and more than 4,000 acres disrupted by mining activites.

Other goals will include working with communities to develop early warning systems for days when residents face high levels of toxic exposures and finding ways to stabilize waste materials so they become less mobile, thereby decreasing the flow of pollution into waterways, Lewis said.

"There are so many of these sites and the cost of cleanup is so huge that we are looking at a very long time until all these things are addressed," she said. "So our approach really has to be on how to break the cycle of exposure, while working to protect people from any adverse health effects along the way."

The NIEHS Superfund Research Program funds university-based multidisciplinary research on human health and environmental issue related to hazardous substances with the goal of understanding and breaking the link between exposure and disease, Lewis said.

The new study will draw on expertise from across the UNM campus, she said, and it will formalize many interdisciplinary partnerships that researchers have pursued informally in the past.

A particular focus will be on studying how uranium exposures affect immune function and DNA repair, Lewis said.

"We are now looking at the third generation of people who have been impacted by uranium exposure," she said. "The parents in our current studies were the kids in the first ones." Lewis hopes that continuing collaborations with tribal communities will help lead to interventions to address their health concerns arising from toxic metal exposure.

"We have assembled a great team and we have worked really well together - some of us for 25 years," Lewis said. "I think we are developing a good understanding of all the problems we are facing and are ready to take it to the next level of solutions."