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Citizen Scientists Investigate Environmental Hazards in the Home

Students from Hopi High School collected garbage from their homes and brought it to class. Working in teams of 2-4 people, they separated the garbage into biodegradable materials, trash, and materials that could be recycled. (Courtesy of the Hopi Tribe)

Students from Hopi High School collected garbage from their homes and brought it to class. Working in teams of 2-4 people, they separated the garbage into biodegradable materials, trash, and materials that could be recycled. (Courtesy of the Hopi Tribe)

Some samples are shipped to laboratories at the University of Arizona for analyses that can take two to six weeks depending on the sample type. Lab results are returned to the individual student in a sealed envelope describing the amount of contaminant at the house and ways to reduce it. (Courtesy of the Hopi Tribe)

Some samples are shipped to laboratories at the University of Arizona for analyses that can take two to six weeks depending on the sample type. Lab results are returned to the individual student in a sealed envelope describing the amount of contaminant at the house and ways to reduce it. (Courtesy of the Hopi Tribe)

Each project takes two days to complete and includes course lectures, homework assignments and laboratory work, following the scientific method. Standing in the background is Dr. Mary Kay O'Rourke (left) and public health graduate student Veronica Lugo (right) talking about insects that are commonly found in homes that can cause a health risk. (Courtesy of the Hopi Tribe)

Each project takes two days to complete and includes course lectures, homework assignments and laboratory work, following the scientific method. Standing in the background is Dr. Mary Kay O'Rourke (left) and public health graduate student Veronica Lugo (right) talking about insects that are commonly found in homes that can cause a health risk. (Courtesy of the Hopi Tribe)

A program designed to interest high school students in careers in the environmental health sciences is an extension of a University of Arizona research project to address toxic environmental exposures among the Hopi Tribe in Arizona.

Household exposures are major sources of environmental hazards encountered by many indigenous communities. The Hopi Environmental Health Project uses a community-based participatory research approach in collaboration with the Hopi Tribe to investigate household exposures to arsenic, uranium and particulate matter.

Working alongside the Hopi Tribe, researchers and students from the Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research at the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, aim to expand the tribe’s capacity to address areas of environmental concern that can inform programs and policy.

Robin Harris, professor of epidemiology and Mary Kay O’Rourke, professor emeritus from the College of Public Health, are co-principal investigators of the Hopi Environmental Health Project and developed the curriculum for the “Citizen Science” component of the study designed for students at Hopi High School in Keams Canyon, Arizona, located approximately 260 miles northwest of Phoenix.

The educational component of the project invites students to explore their own home environments through citizen science projects. Students evaluated radon in homes, household pests, arsenic content in drinking water, and solid waste from their homes. 

What the students are learning is exposure science, the investigation of the contact of humans or other organisms with chemical, physical and biologic stressors. Understanding exposure provides the real world context for describing risk, along with information on the most effective ways to reduce exposure and improve health.

“The goal of this program is to excite students about science and health, with an eye on the future in hopes they will attend college and consider pursuing careers in the environmental health sciences,” said Eva Bahnimptewa, a science teacher at Hopi High School.

“We hope students think about their environment and health critically in response to these experiences. Further, we hope students pursue their education and learn skills that will serve the Tribe.  There are a number of financial aid programs to help students achieve this goal. Knowledge is power,” said LaVonne Honyouti, science teacher and department chair at Hopi High School.

Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research

The Center for Indigenous Environmental Health Research (CIEHR) at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, is a Center of Excellence for Environmental Health Disparities Research supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Environmental Protection Agency. The overall goal of CIEHR is to partner with rural and urban indigenous communities to build capacity to measure and determine the contribution of environmental exposures to health inequities and support efforts to address these threats, including research translation and policy development. CIEHR employs a community-based participatory research approach in its research and outreach projects. For more information: ciehr.arizona.edu

Special thanks to Lorencita Joshweseoma, director of the Hopi Department of Health and Human Services; LaVonne Honyouti, science teacher and department chair at Hopi High School; Eva Bahnimptewa, science teacher at Hopi High School; and Mary Kay O’Rourke, professor emeritus, University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, for contributing to this article.​

The University of Arizona