Exposure to toxins studied under new EPA grants

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WASHINGTON - One clean fish can affect the health, language, social structure, economy and spirituality of an entire people.

"When it's lost, it's replaced with poorer nutrition and a whole set of skills is lost," said Barbara Harper, adjunct professor at Oregon State University.

Harper is one of four investigators under a $1.5 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant studying the environmental exposure of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) in northeast Oregon, the Spokane Tribe of Indians in Washington, the Aroostook Band of MicMac Indians in Maine, the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe (Ojibwe), the Elem Indian Colony in California and the Swinomish Indian Community on Puget Sound.

The three-year study, Lifestyle and Cultural Practices of Tribal Populations and Risks from Toxic Substances in the Environment, was awarded to Oregon State University to study subsistence lifestyles and the impact of environment on tribal lands. According to the EPA's Office of Research and Development and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, tribal populations are at high risk for environmentally-caused diseases.

"We're trying to help them understand that environmental pollution is not just a matter of not being able to fish or hold ceremony in a particular place," said Harper.

Most of the work will be done by faculty, students and a tribal risk assessor.

"We are not collecting tribal-specific data but instead are relying on existing published material," Harper said. "We will ask each tribe whether they think specific references are accurate or not, given the problems with oral history versus anthropological documentation."

The group is avoiding proprietary or detailed information about species or activities. For instance, a complete list of medicine plants will not be listed. Rather, a typical subsistence food pyramid will be used to identify major foods in a region.

"It's designed to provide tribes across the country with ecologically relevant scenarios," said Harper. "By having general scenarios, tribes will be in a better place to refine specific environmental codes and standards."

Harper said it's needed because EPA currently uses general suburban assumptions that do not reflect traditional lifeways that include spending more time outdoors in connection to the land. It also does not reflect diets that may include eating a pound of fish a day rather than once a week.

"Science is a product of the society that develops it and it is formed to serve the needs of that society," said Stuart Harris, Cayuse, director for CTUIR's Environmental Science Technology Program, in a 1998 speech. "Unfortunately, the processes, the approach, and even the necessity to account for traditional American Indian lifestyles have gone unnoticed in classical risk assessments that typically focus on suburban lifestyles."

How can you put a price on a sacred song that is derived from a landscape feature and is significant to the survival of my people and therefore my gene pool, Harris asked.

"Impacts to the ecology directly impact the health of my people and put my culture at risk," he said. "All of the foods and implements gathered and manufactured by the traditional American Indian are interconnected in at least one, but more often in many ways."

CTUIR, which includes Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Indians, is located on the Columbia River where the nearby Hanford nuclear plant exposes tribal members exercising their traditional rights to radioactivity two to 10 times that of a resident working an indoor job and spending most of their off hours inside their house.

Harris explained that plants, for instance, are used for more than just nutrition. Daily cleaning, preparation and ingestion and crafting of plant materials into household goods occurs throughout the year, he said.

"The cattail provides an example," Harris said. "In the spring the shoots are eaten, the roots are consumed, and the fibrous stalks are split, woven or twisted into baskets or mats ... Later in the year the pollen is used for breads. Each of these activities involves gathering the plants from marshy areas, sorting, cleaning, stripping, peeling, splitting, chewing, and using various parts of the plant. Our basket weavers typically hold plant materials in their mouths during separation of the inner and outer bark. In addition to the plant itself, they contact sediment and water, and generally there will be cuts on the hands from the sharp edges that could facilitate dermal absorption during gathering, preparation, and weaving."

EPA's goal is to prepare a set of exposure scenarios across the lower 48 states and establish an Advisory Board of tribal members and university members to provide information on nutrition, ecology and activities. A Tribal Exposure Scenario Guidance Manual will be drafted that will allow different tribes to modify methods to their individual situations so that cultural use as well as human health is protected.

"We have traditional environmental knowledge," said Harris. "Each tribe has their own culture, history, language, customs, ways to take care of food and ceremonies that have been around for thousands of years."

The study was proposed because of increased awareness of toxic environments on traditional preparation and use of foods, medicines, crafts, tools and ceremonial objects.

Its two main areas are to assess the exposure and effects and develop strategies to reduce the risks in ways that will not compromise cultural practices.

"We have endured, with our culture intact even through a 600-year holocaust," said Harris. "Our struggle is not over. With each successive generation we are forced to react to numerous environmental, cultural, and health impacts."

Ultimately, the story about the long-term impacts of pollution on culture needs to be incorporated within the oral histories, he said, "because of the long-lived nature of some of the contaminants. This relates to many stewardship issues that are gaining attention. As the original managers of sustainable environmental systems, I believe tribal scientists can contribute a great deal to stewardship programs."