Gallup Independent

Over 50 years of exposure but still no comprehensive health studies on Navajo

By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau

Thursday, November 15, 2007

WINDOW ROCK - No health studies, no problem.

A burgeoning list of cancers, heart, respiratory and kidney diseases, as well as birth defects among Navajos exposed to radiation are easily dismissed by the federal government for lack of scientific data.

That missing link, of course, is a plus for the feds, who could stand to pay out untold millions and possibly billions of dollars to compensate victims under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act if the studies actually existed and confirmed what many Navajos suspect regarding radiation exposure through government-conducted atomic tests and uranium mining.

"The federal government had 50-plus years to get scientific data, but this was never done. The monitoring and surveillance should have been done from the onset," Cora Maxx-Phillips, executive director of Navajo Division of Social Services, told members of a Uranium Roundtable hosted last Thursday in Washington by U.S. Reps. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.

"I'd like to first bring out a very common fact that has been overly discussed out in the Navajo communities," Maxx-Phillips said. "Navajo Nation has never, ever had a comprehensive health study done, so therefore, we don't really know what the magnitude and the severity of the problems are that we deal with on a daily basis."

"There has never been any kind of medical surveillance done in communities that have been exposed to uranium so therefore, we don't know what the health effects are. We can only speculate. We only know that uranium is highly toxic and other associated contaminants cause radiation poisoning.

"We only know that lung disease is very high in our communities. We only know that the cancer rates are very high. Kidney disease is very high. We also know that limited studies have shown that Navajo neuropathy and birth defects have been linked in the impacted communities, but these results have never been followed up in a systematic way.

"We really don't know what particular sensitivities there are among the Navajo people … Without any kind of scientific data we don't know how to protect the health of our people," Maxx-Phillips said.

Anslem Roanhorse, Navajo Division of Health, told those present about the work done by the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers, established in 1990.

"Our work is very disheartening sometimes, that we have to turn people away," he said, because their illnesses are not on the list of RECA-compensable diseases or they don't have enough work history to meet federal requirements.

"Today we have registered 3,800 individuals. Unfortunately, over 2,000 individuals have not been compensated. They have been denied," Roanhorse said. "We only have 1,070 that have been compensated to date."

He also spoke of the Radiation Exposure Screening Education Program, or RESEP, which was established in 2002 and is operated out of the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock.

RESEP provides medical services to more than 2,500 members of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, he said, offering compensation-based medical screenings to former uranium workers and downwinders pursuant to RECA.

The office also offers referral services for individuals identified through the screenings that have compensable medical conditions, and information regarding mine-related diseases to Navajo uranium workers and their families, as well as Hopi downwinders.

"RESEP is funded through August 2008 through HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration), and beyond August 2008 it is not known whether the program will be re-funded," Roanhorse said.

The initial grant which funded RESEP was more than $500,000. "Since then, the amount of funding has decreased," he said.

"There are various publications that reveal that thousands of individuals were adversely affected by uranium mining. Some of these people that were affected include miners that were directly exposed by mining, and also there is a secondary group, including children who have played at or near abandoned mines or mill tailing piles."

He spoke of sheepherders who watered their sheep in unreclaimed mining areas, elderly women who for many years washed the clothing of their uranium miner husbands and were exposed, as well as family members who obtained drinking water from streams that ran through or near the uranium mines.

"It is indeed frightening to see these problems in our communities and not to know what the true impacts of uranium exposure are, and yet we are faced with new mining prospects," Maxx-Phillips said.

"In light of the horrendous suffering of our people, the contamination of our land, air and water, we are asking that a long-term systematic medical surveillance be implemented to begin monitoring the general health of our people.

"We are asking for federal funding for more independent, scientific research. We also ask that strong partnerships be implemented. Strong partnerships are needed between the regulators, between decision-makers, the lawmakers, academic institutions and independent scientists.

"We need to know how to regulate new exposure to protect the health of our people," she said. "There is simply no logic in renewing uranium mining when we have failed mining polices from the past."

Roanhorse said, "Today we have many people that are coming to us expressing their concern about the next generation."

He submitted a written statement to the congressmen which included a lot of data, he said, "but we also feel that the data that we have researched and presented also needs further analysis."

Roanhorse offered several recommendations the Navajo Nation would like to see implemented, including extending the funding for RESEP beyond August 2008, reducing the time and burden it takes to process RECA compensation applications, and inclusion and passage of a study of health hazards proposed in Section 215 of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

"In order to understand the risks of uranium mining and milling and also the costs of mining unto the people's health and environment, we feel the federal government really should support comprehensive assessment and research," he said.

Maxx-Phillips said holistic health is very important to the Navajo people, who still are feeling the effects of contamination yet again are faced with the desecration of sacred sites.

"Mt. Taylor is under threat of exploitation from uranium mining. For the Navajo people, sacred sites are the foundation of all our beliefs and practices, communing with higher spiritual powers because they represent the presence of the sacredness in our lives.

"It properly informs us that we are not greater than nature and that we have a responsibility to the rest of the natural world that transcends beyond our mere human desires. The more we permanently destroy our planetary nest … we shall have to learn a bitter lesson in the future."

The desecration of Mt. Taylor not only could potentially affect the Navajo people on the physical level, but "in a very spiritual way," she said.