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New Center Gets $5M to Address American Indian Health

NAU graduate student Andee Lister collects a water sample from an unregulated well in the southwestern region of the Navajo Nation.

NAU graduate student Andee Lister collects a water sample from an unregulated well in the southwestern region of the Navajo Nation.

The UA and Northern Arizona University will establish a research center dedicated to reducing health risks posed by environmental hazards in indigenous communities.

American Indian and Alaska Native communities experience higher rates of mortality due to cancer, respiratory disease and obesity, and research has shown that exposures to higher levels of environmental pollution have an effect on health.

Scientists at the University of Arizona's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and Northern Arizona University — who have been working with indigenous communities overburdened by pollution and other environmental factors that contribute to health disparities — have received a $5 million grant to enhance those efforts.

Recently, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded the five-year grant to the UA and NAU to establish the Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research, which is dedicated to reducing health risks posed by environmental hazards in indigenous communities.

The center will be one of five jointly funded by the NIH, NIMHD and EPA. At the CIEHR, scientists from the UA and NAU will partner with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and community organizations across the nation to study their concerns and develop culturally appropriate ways to reduce exposure.

A total of 567 federally recognized tribes exist in the U.S., and they have different exposures, cultural practices, community resilience factors and health outcomes. While existing indigenous health programs focus on clinical disease, a significant gap exists in assessing environmental exposures.

"Unregulated wells pose a significant risk for chemical contamination of drinking water," said Jeff Burgess, MD, MPH, principal investigator and associate dean of research and professor at the College of Public Health. "Locally grown and traditional foods have tremendous cultural significance, but also can serve as major sources of chemical exposure. Also, particulate exposure from heating by burning wood and coal in the home is an important contributor to environmental health disparities among American Indians and Alaskan Natives."

The research team will examine a range of stressors on health, including air, water and soil pollution, in addition to environmental conditions related to housing (such as exposure to lead paint, asbestos, mold and radon) and diet.

The investigators will collaborate with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe to define research questions, recruit study participants and collect data. Once the data has been analyzed, the research team will work with the tribes to translate the findings into information for decision-making and action.

"Community social and cultural practices and experience with past adversity contribute to the resilience of indigenous communities as they face environmental hazards," said Stephanie Rainie, DrPH, MPH, assistant director of the new center and a UA assistant professor of public health. "The tribes can determine how to best strengthen community resilience and increase environmental health literacy to address existing health issues and prevent harmful exposures."

The project involving the Navajo Nation will focus on the health risks and impact of contamination of traditional food and water. An outcome of this project is the development of a model that will support culturally relevant and community-created policy with respect to contaminated traditional foods and water that will be scalable to other Native American communities. The project is led by Jani Ingram, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at NAU.

The project with the Hopi Tribe will evaluate the risks to respiratory health from household air, water, food exposures from arsenic, uranium and particulate matter. A combined Hopi-UA team, in collaboration with a community advisory board and tribal officials, is conducting the research. Robin Harris, PhD and Mary Kay O’Rourke, PhD, UA professors of public health, are co-leaders of this project.

Nicolette Teufel-Shone, PhD, professor of family and child health at the College of Public Health, is the Community Engagement Core lead helping to facilitate the tribe-university partnership for all projects within the new center. Teufel-Shone has worked with Native American communities in the Southwest for more than 25 years, building and promoting community capacity to address chronic disease prevention.

The Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research is housed within the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health and Northern Arizona University. It is a Center of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research, supported by the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities and the Environmental Protection Agency. The center utilizes a community-based participatory research approach for all of its research and outreach projects. The center partners with rural and urban American Indian and Alaska Native communities to build capacity to measure and determine the contribution of environmental exposures to health inequities and support efforts to address these threats.

The University of Arizona