Environmental Factor – September 2022: Tribal Environmental Health Strengthened by NIEHS-Funded Scientist and Team

Rick Woychik, Ph.D., NIEHS Director's Corner Rick Woychik, Ph.D., directs the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program. (Image courtesy of NIEHS)

For nearly three decades, Johnny Lewis, Ph.D., advanced Native American health by combining basic research, population-level studies, clear science communication, and strong tribal partnerships. She is a long-time recipient of a NIEHS grant from the University of New Mexico (UNM), where she uses a transdisciplinary team approach to tackle issues related to environmental justice and health disparities. , which affect many indigenous communities.

Lewis is a professor at UNM’s Community Environmental Health Program, which she started in 1996 to address tribal concerns about harmful exposures involving abandoned uranium mines, milling sites and waste piles left behind by the development of Cold War weapons. For example, there are more than 1,100 such locations in the Navajo Nation, the largest native reservation. About 170,000 residents live in the territory, which includes parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Toxic exposures there have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, immune suppression and other conditions.

To expand knowledge about these health threats to Navajos and other tribes, Lewis directs the UNM Assessing Metal Exposure and Toxicity in Southwestern Tribal Lands (METALS) Superfund Research Program Center and the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research, both developed with funding from NIEHS. She studies the legacy contamination of uranium mining waste, which involves evaluating complex mixtures of metals, such as uranium, arsenic and lead. His team also studies emerging exposures, including microplastics, and develops strategies to clean up pollution from the environment.

Recently, I spoke with Lewis about his efforts to address tribal health issues, effectively communicate findings, partner with communities to identify research questions, and reduce exposures. Additionally, I asked her to discuss how she became interested in this work and what inspired her to pursue a career in science. It was an honor to speak with Lewis, and I am delighted to share excerpts from our conversation, provided below.

Johnny Lewis, Ph.D. Lewis’ areas of expertise include toxicology, metal mixtures, indigenous environmental health, and community partnership research, among others. (Photo courtesy of Johnnye Lewis)

Uranium mining and tribal contamination

Rick Woychik: Over the years, a major aspect of your work has been to study the exposure of tribal communities to hazardous substances from uranium mining during the Cold War era. Can you tell us what motivated you to carry out such research?

Johnny Lewis: In the early 1990s, I was a consultant for the US Department of Energy on uranium mill tailings remedial action [UMTRA; see sidebar] project, which aimed to clean up contamination from thousands of former sites associated with uranium mills. Factory owners could join a federal program that would do their cleanup, and if they didn’t sign up, they were stuck with any potential liability. I interacted with tribal communities, particularly on Navajo, to assess their risk and determine if there were any unique exposure pathways that might be occurring and adding to risk or altering cleanup strategies.

One day I was contacted by 20 communities in the Navajo Nation that had a history of uranium mining and a high prevalence of kidney disease. What was remarkable is that in their region, this disease occurred very early — at that time, it was not uncommon to see teenagers on dialysis. A doctor had spoken with members of the tribe about the fact that uranium was toxic to the kidneys, which motivated them to ask for help in conducting research to determine if the uranium contained in the unregulated water they drank was the cause of the early onset and severity of kidney disease.

They had seen one of the first announcements of environmental justice funding opportunities from the NIEHS, and they assembled a group of people they thought they could help. They asked me to lead research in this area, and I have been doing so ever since, thanks in large part to the continued support of NIEHS. Also, I am proud that over the years many of our researchers have been Native Americans. Their scientific talent, cultural sensitivity and ability to establish trusted partnerships were essential.

Toxic metals, toxic waste

RW: Can you expand on the environmental threats facing tribal communities and describe some of your team’s work to reduce exposures? I understand that we are talking about much more than exposure to uranium.

J.L.: Yes, when we talk about exhibitions on tribal lands, we are not talking about a substance but rather mixtures of toxic metals. Metal contamination of drinking water is a long-standing problem. And over the decades since the mining and milling sites were operated, these substances have degraded to nanoparticle size, making them easily transportable by the wind.

Our team also assesses volatile compounds and microplastics associated with waste combustion. In some communities, there are no formal solid waste disposal systems, and people burn the waste or tribes, in some cases, create very large smoldering burn piles, creating low-temperature combustion over long periods.

Beyond these potentially harmful inhalation exposures, there are concerns about how such contamination could affect wildlife, livestock and plant life. And we worry about what is happening with climate change. We are getting hotter, we are getting drier and dust storms are very common here, increasing the risk of pollutants spreading to more areas and affecting more people.

Given these and other issues, we strive to develop practical, low-cost tools and strategies that can reduce exposure risks and improve health. For example, we are currently evaluating whether zinc supplementation can prevent DNA damage caused by exposure to arsenic and uranium, which can inhibit DNA repair enzymes. Preliminary results look very promising and also taught us a lot about exposures.

Additionally, our team is studying how fungi affect the movement and distribution of metals. We investigate whether manipulating the soil microbiome can reduce metal uptake in plants and water, which could benefit ecosystems and agriculture. We are conducting controlled greenhouse studies to find out how the composition of fungi in the soil affects the movement of these metals. Our goal is to develop a bioreactor, test it in the lab, and then bring it to a community setting.

A unique aspect of our work is that we listen to the concerns of communities and then respond to their needs through research. For example, some of our investigators became interested in microplastics, and then tribal members brought up the issue of burning garbage pits, so we knew expanding in that direction would be a good fit. Our community tribal partners are partners in research design and implementation.

Science communication through art

RW: You received the 2021 Society of Toxicology Public Communication Award in recognition of your efforts to develop inclusive science communication strategies for underserved tribal communities. Can you give us an example of your work in this area?

J.L.:Some time ago at a community mutton roast for the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity team, we shared complex data during a presentation, using what we thought were simple graphs . One of our outside advisors stopped us and asked the tribe members present if they understood the information on our PowerPoint slides.

Every head in the room fell.

This feedback was valuable and embarrassing, but it made us laugh at ourselves and reevaluate our assumption that community members understood us just because some asked questions. It started a conversation about how we could improve our presentations. Community members told us that they are visual learners and that if we could use art to share our findings, our outreach would likely be much more effective.

Soon after, we launched an artist-in-residence program and hired Mallery Quetawki, who is a very gifted Zuni painter. At the time, we thought she would only stay with us for a year. Well, about five years later, Mallery is still working with us and she’s been an incredible asset to our team. In fact, we are developing a program where she will mentor other artists in scientific translation.

image shows how the DNA repair process, aided by zinc, is like putting a broken traditional bead necklace back in place “This image shows how the zinc-assisted DNA repair process is like putting a broken traditional bead necklace back together,” Mali Velasco wrote in a 2021 Environmental Factor article describing the art of Quetawki. “The flower design symbolizes the idea of ​​regrowth.” (Image courtesy of Mallery Quetawki)

There are many cultural differences between tribes and seekers, but we have found that art can transcend them. Quetawki’s work resonates with the tribes because it references their traditions and cultural values. She helps members of the community better understand scientific concepts and her paintings allow us to see our own research from new perspectives.

Ultimately, our science is built on strong relationships with community partners. And these relationships are built on trust, communication and humility on the part of scientists. By listening to tribal members first and understanding their needs, we can improve our research and its impact, and give communities the knowledge they need to improve their health.

(Rick Woychik, Ph.D., directs the NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program.)

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