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Akwesasne Mohawk Youth Are Still at Risk of Industrial Pollutants

The industrial facilities built in the 1950s on the St. Lawrence River where New York, Quebec and Ontario meet were a toxic turning point for the unwary Akwesasne Mohawk.

While the Mohawk continued their 9,000-year traditional fishing and hunting lifestyle, and celebrated ceremonies on the river, industrial contaminants from the manufacturing process poisoned its waters. Instead of their fishing birthright, the river they call Kaniatarowanenneh has yielded industrial pollutants through contaminated fish, wildlife and their mother’s milk.

The bodies of young Akwesasne Mohawk adults have twice the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as the national average, compared to those studied by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of PCBs in 1979 because of their toxicity, longevity, and ability to accumulate in the food chain and in people’s bodies. The Akwesasne were told to limit consumption of local traditional fish and animal foods in the early 1980s when studies found persistent organic pollutants had contaminated local fish and wildlife. Health assessments, which found the breast milk of young Mohawk mothers contained elevated concentrations of PCBs and was transferred to nursing infants, led to an outright ban of all fish for mothers, infants and children.

The ban, it seems, was well founded. A study in the May 2011 issue of the journal Chemosphere found higher levels of PCBs in those born before the advisories against eating local foods went into effect, than in those born afterward. The study also revealed significantly higher levels in those who had eaten fish within the previous year, in those who were first-born, and in those who were breast-fed.

“What this study is saying is that these chemicals are extremely persistent in people,” said co-author Lawrence Schell, a professor at the State University of New York (SUNY at Albany) and director of its Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities. “Once you’re exposed it’s difficult to remove that exposure burden.”

PCBs are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), commonly called endocrine disruptors. EDCs mimic or block hormones and disrupt the body’s normal functions. They are also linked to some cancers and have been found to have adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system and nervous system. “Endocrine disruption seems to be the effect which is most far reaching because other effects on the reproductive system may be well tied into that,” said Schell.
The findings are part of a 16-year research project between the St. Regis Mohawk Nation and SUNY researchers who are examining PCBs and the health concerns of Mohawk youth.

The St. Regis Akwesasne community is adjacent to an EPA Superfund site, an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located. It was once occupied by a General Electric facility that dumped tons of hazardous waste into two landfills that released PCBs. Nearby aluminum smelters belonging to Reynolds and Alcoa, now New York state Superfund sites, also released the PCBs that contaminate the river, its tributaries, its wildlife and its people.

The high PCB levels rapidly changed their traditional lifestyle after 1988. Snapping turtles, known to Natives as the foundation of Mother Earth—Turtle Island—were found to be contaminated at levels that would qualify them as hazardous waste. Yet outwardly the area is placid, and still a beautiful place to live, Craig Arquette, a member of the tribe who serves on the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, a group that assisted the researchers, told ICTMN.

The more researchers learn about how PCBs affect human health in the community, the more questions are raised. But as Schell pointed out, “It’s important to acknowledge that there have been some questions that have been answered.”

Researchers have already established that PCBs have altered thyroid gland function in the Akwesasne community. Prior studies found lower testosterone levels and established links to autoimmune disorders.

PCBs are ubiquitous in today’s environment. Nonetheless, there are instances in which potential exposure is justified. In all but the most extreme circumstances, for example, breast milk remains the best food for babies, according the American Academy of Pediatrics. It contains important nutrients that boost immunity, and can even confer protections against neurotoxic pollutants.

But concerns over PCBs continue. “The results [of all the studies] are interesting because they establish the link between disease and exposure,” Arquette said. “This latest is an indication that we’ll need to do more.”