Living With Environmental Contaminants: Science Moab Talks With Researchers About The Impact Of Chemical Contamination On Regional Communities | Go out and go

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Both natural and man-made contaminants are found in the rivers and ecosystems of the Colorado Plateau. This week, Science Moab speaks with Jonathan Credo, MD-PhD student at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, and Amy Chandos, senior research technician at Northern Arizona University, about the impact of the contamination of human origin on tribal communities, non-indigenous communities and on regional ecosystems.

Science Moab: What types of contaminants are you studying?

Creed: In southern Utah there is a lot of agriculture so the contaminants could be runoff from farms or livestock. These are not necessarily intentional or malicious; We only recently understand how chemicals find their way into groundwater and soils. Another major source of contamination is the long history of heavy metal mining in the South West. The Navajo Nation is infamous for its long history of uranium mining. But even before uranium mining resumed, this region had been mined for things like vanadium, molybdenum, and other precious heavy metals.

Science Moab: How do these routes of human exposure occur?

Creed: One way is exposure through ingestion, so things that people eat, drink, or inhale. But then we have to break it down. We need to understand where the contaminants are stored. Mining can contribute to these last two avenues. When you dig in the earth, you have the potential to contaminate the groundwater system, or even dump into surface water. As for inhalation exposure, if you’re digging in a dusty environment, you’re going to have to move the dirt you’ve moved. While this dirt might not have the resources you are looking for, it can certainly be enriched with other contaminants, like arsenic and manganese.

Science Moab: Once these things get into the system, how long are the effects felt?

Songs: It depends on the chemical element. Many hydrophilic contaminants can be transient as long as the source goes away, but if there is a continuous source then there will be continuous exposure.

Creed: I think the effects take a lot longer than a lot of people think. The Gold King mine spill is a prime example; there is a pretty infamous photo of the river tinted with gold, but within a week or a month the water has returned to pretty much the previous color. If you only look at this system and have a relatively narrow scope, then the contaminants in the water tend to go away quite quickly. But the big idea now is that contaminants probably build up in downstream reservoirs, almost like filter coffee. It can be frightening for the communities that live downstream.

Science Moab: Could you detail the distribution of contaminants on the Plateau?

Creed: The short answer is we’re not sure. We are certainly seeing a higher incidence of certain cancers and chronic diseases among the Colorado Plateau tribals. But it’s a common problem with the science of contamination: is it because of the toxic environment they live in, or because of other health disparities? It is difficult to determine these variables. But the fact that it is unknown should not be an excuse not to study it; the fact that these studies are difficult should not be a reason not to be interested in them.

Songs: Sometimes scientists find it difficult to work with tribes and minority groups. There can be a lot of mistrust because scientists in the past have not always acted with the best interests of these people in mind. They certainly weren’t always culturally sensitive. It also did not facilitate data collection and information dissemination.

Science Moab: What can be done to remedy these environmental exposures on the Plateau?

Creed: One message is not to be discouraged. Most scientists are more than happy to speak with the community. Without community buy-in, our research will simply rot in a post or on someone’s shelf. If the community becomes educated and involved, then it can make its voice heard among local representatives. In the long run, you can get bigger policy changes.

Songs: This legislation also allowed the clean-up of many sources of contamination, including mines, tailings and environmental spills, such as the Gold King mine spill. These cleanings are aimed at helping the ecosystem and animals thrive in this highly human-influenced environment.

Science Moab is a non-profit organization dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of Jonathan Credo and Amy Chandos’ interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio. This interview has been edited for clarity.


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