Dooshibeehozindala! (I didn't know!)
November 16, 2014 10:46 AM   Subscribe

"Mushak calculated that for each day in the desert that she drank 3 liters from the pits, she was exposed to uranium at levels nearly 100 times the federal maximum… She also received a dose of radioactive alpha particles that was probably 10 times the safety threshold for pregnancy or more. When Lois drank from the pits, she pumped ‘a witch's brew’ into her womb."

Navajo neuropathy [academic paywall, abstract free] is a devastating degenerative disease that causes poor eyesight, muscular weakness, loss of motor control, and liver damage. Some researchers suspect it is due to a founder effect, but others think that exposure to dangerously high levels of uranium and other mining pollutants is to blame.

Whether Navajo neuropathy is due to uranium exposure or not, uranium mining on native lands has a long and troubled history. Propelled by the Cold War, uranium mining became a thriving industry in America as a consequence of the Manhattan Project. Approximately 1000 of these mines operated on land belonging to the Navajo (Diné) Nation, and the health consequences have been severe for many. The failure of public health officials to respond to uranium contamination has even been the subject of a documentary. Meanwhile, abandoned uranium mines are still a problem in the American Southwest.
posted by WidgetAlley (27 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Navajo banned uranium mining on their land in 2005, but due to a mixed jurisdiction of tribal and federal authorities in some areas and a push for expansion by the energy industry, uranium mining is making a comeback.
posted by WidgetAlley at 10:52 AM on November 16, 2014


Navajo neuropathy, on first glance, seems to have a too specific set of symptoms to be just exposure to a mix of pollutants. If it were environmental, we'd surely see at least a few non-Navajo people with the same disease.

Are there any actual scientific sources supporting the link with pollution, or is it just that one blog where sufferers themselves speculate?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:08 AM on November 16, 2014


But on reading Payne's findings, he recommended that the health service "get involved in determining if there are contaminated water sites in Cameron … and other areas," adding that the IHS "may also have to support this effort financially."

The suggestion died quietly.


So you discover that all of the water in the area is irradiated, a suggestion is made that someone do something, and the suggestion dies quietly?

How the hell do people live with themselves when such horrible things come of their abdication of responsibility?
posted by Ickster at 11:09 AM on November 16, 2014 [8 favorites]


Are there any actual scientific sources supporting the link with pollution, or is it just that one blog where sufferers themselves speculate?

Not to threadsit, but since Joakin asked: the first link (the witches' brew one) has a discussion of the genetics article with some dissenting opinions from experts. As far as I could find, it's still an open question and hasn't been looked at much since 2006.
posted by WidgetAlley at 11:15 AM on November 16, 2014


How the hell do people live with themselves when such horrible things come of their abdication of responsibility?

Serial killer is merely the least creative manifestation of the sociopath. We'd do better in our society if we extended this label to all those who consider human life an externality regardless of economic strata or societal standing.
posted by any major dude at 11:46 AM on November 16, 2014 [31 favorites]


Joakim Ziegler: "Navajo neuropathy, on first glance, seems to have a too specific set of symptoms to be just exposure to a mix of pollutants.

A specific set of symptoms that are pretty much textbook fetal radiation?

If it were environmental, we'd surely see at least a few non-Navajo people with the same disease.

No non-Navajos were out drinking the water day in day out.

Are there any actual scientific sources supporting the link with pollution, or is it just that one blog where sufferers themselves speculate?"

This ain't garden-variety "pollution". It's radiation poisoning from tailings ponds.
posted by notsnot at 12:00 PM on November 16, 2014 [5 favorites]


Could also be heavy metal poisoning, given the liver damage reported.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:03 PM on November 16, 2014


notsnot: "
A specific set of symptoms that are pretty much textbook fetal radiation?
"

A specific set of symptoms that are largely shared by a group of Italians who also have the same mutation that's been found in the Navajo with Navajo neuropathy. Granted, there are a couple of symptoms that are found in Navajo neuropathy and not in the Italians, so it's likely that this is a combination of genetics and environmental factors, but it seems very clear that there's a genetic component. It's very unfortunate that doctors are asking about "incest" all the time, giving the patients the idea that this disease is something to be ashamed of, and making them unlikely to accept the diagnosis and/or the most likely explanation.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:47 PM on November 16, 2014


And I said "pollution" in general because the original post itself mentioned "exposure to dangerously high levels of uranium and other mining pollutants".
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:51 PM on November 16, 2014


A specific set of symptoms that are pretty much textbook fetal radiation?...]This ain't garden-variety "pollution". It's radiation poisoning from tailings ponds.

Umm. It really doesn't sound like that to me. The radium numbers given in the post (~5x regulations) seem too low to cause deterministic effects like this on their own. The symptoms start showing up well after birth (13 months) and are progressive in nature in a way not at all likely to be associated with radiation.

Back of the envelope dose calculation:
1. Two numbers appear anywhere in here, 140 pCi/L radium in wells and 4000 pCi/L in pits.
2. Lets use the most conservative dose to activity conversion. Assume all Ra-226 instead of 228 and it is 4.6e-7 Sv/Bq. That is the radiation dose in Sv associated the the ingestion of a Bq of Ra-226 for infants (the most radiosensitive population).
3. Simple unit conversion: 140 pCi= 6 Bq, 4000pCi=150 Bq
4. Lets assume 3L of water ingestion a day, or about a 1000 L/year.

6 Bq/L * 1000L/y * 4.6e-7 Sv/Bq = .00276 Sv/y = .276 rem/y = 276 mrem/y
150 Bq/L * 1000L/y * 4.6e-7 = .069 Sv/y = 6.9 rem/y

Some perspective:
5 rem/y is the allowable dose for a radiation worker.
600 mrem/y is the average dose to a member of the US public
300 mrem is the average dose to a member of the US public from natural sources (the rest is from medical exposures)

So all the drinking was done from contaminated wells, it might ~double the average background associated dose. But that number would have been higher in an area where uranium mining is practical anyway. I can only speak to the radiation, not heavy metal toxicity, but I'd put money on it not being radiation from the information given.

But my copy of Hall's Radiobiology for the Radiologist and other reference materials are mostly at work and I'd need more data to speak with anywhere near the certainty you use.
posted by pseudonick at 12:54 PM on November 16, 2014 [17 favorites]


There is also their livestock to consider, especially sheep. Most Navajos at risk live on distant roads and haul water from watering points, but their roaming livestock drink from thousands of unregulated sources and could spread radiation in the food chain to the majority who get safe water.
posted by Brian B. at 1:24 PM on November 16, 2014


"Whether Navajo neuropathy is due to uranium exposure or not"

Is pretty important to this discussion no?
posted by vapidave at 1:26 PM on November 16, 2014



How the hell do people live with themselves when such horrible things come of their abdication of responsibility?


Because they don't think of native americans as human beings with intrinsic value, and they never will.
posted by poffin boffin at 1:37 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


I can only speak to the radiation, not heavy metal toxicity, but I'd put money on it not being radiation from the information given.

As far as symptoms go it sounds more like heavy metal poisoning - which could still be from uranium.
posted by atoxyl at 2:08 PM on November 16, 2014


As far as symptoms go it sounds more like heavy metal poisoning - which could still be from uranium.

Actually Uranium 238 (making up the bulk of anything outside of a bomb or submarine reactor) doesn't have a very high specific activity - the risk from heavy metal toxicity may be comparable to or greater than that due to radiation.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:18 PM on November 16, 2014


Pseudonick, your figures show that someone drinking solely from pits would have a radiation exposure nearly two and a half times the allowable dose for a radiation worker. That doesn't include other environmental exposure, other ingestion (e.g. from animals drinking the same water), inhalation of particles left behind from irrigation with that water, or exposure to the tailings themselves. And the allowable exposure is for a healthy adult radiation worker, not a pregnant woman or infant; and we don't actually know that the radiation levels cited are the highest ones around, or what other factors might potentiate the damage. The levels cited are cause for great concern in themselves and surely warrant further investigation.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:23 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


.
posted by limeonaire at 2:38 PM on November 16, 2014


Are there any actual scientific sources supporting the link with pollution

Here's an excerpt from Federal Actions to Address Impacts of Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation. It does not deal with Navajo neuropathy specifically, but with uranium contamination in general. The EPA outlined a number of goals at the outset of a five-year plan, including:
Use Superfund authority to take appropriate action at water sources contaminated by mine waste and found to be endangering human health.
Excellent! Except:
It was beyond the scope of this effort to determine whether the source of uranium and other radionuclides was from naturally occurring sources or due to mining and milling.
In fairness to the authors, I suspect that it is difficult to prove mining contamination with a high degree of certainty. Especially without the benefit of historic water quality data.
posted by compartment at 2:40 PM on November 16, 2014


They're cooking with it too and showering, brewing coffee, watering plants etc. Exposure is likely far more than 3l a day. Especially I'm the desert.
posted by fshgrl at 2:44 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


This ain't garden-variety "pollution". It's radiation poisoning from tailings ponds.

I recently moved to the Western Slope of Colorado, just a few hours from the Navajo nation.

One of the things I was warned about when buying a house was to watch for ones built in the 50-70s and avoid them. Many houses (and other construction!) in this area were backfilled or graded with uranium mine tailings, leading to some not great outcomes for a lot of people.

It boggles the mind.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 2:48 PM on November 16, 2014 [2 favorites]


Recently, a push has been made to add South and Central American history into the curriculum at the academic institution I work for. The proposed course starts with colonization and focuses on the history of Europeans in the Americas.

This led me to poke around into the curriculum of our North American history courses. These too begin with colonization, as if the native populations were squatters or (to paraphrase Tony Abbot) American was nothing but plains and mountains before the Europeans arrived.

This led me to reflect on the fact that during my own education, we barely touched on the native population of North America. They were an obstacle or sometimes the victim of an atrocity, but their names, culture, and history may as well have not existed for how it was covered in my classes.

I'm not saying this is true absolutely everywhere, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were schools in the U.S. that treated the first peoples as obstacles and didn't even go into how dreadful the Europeans were to them - or if they did, they justified why it was necessary.

I mention all this because Ickster asks:

How the hell do people live with themselves when such horrible things come of their abdication of responsibility?

I think its because the United States, as a country, would rather just forget that the native population exists at all. We don't teach our children about it and the only issue that most Americans are even aware of is the racist Washington sports team name. They're so busy feeling like they honoring the native populations by naming their sports teams after them that they don't even notice that real people are suffering. In fact, they'd just as soon not know. Go Braves! Tomahawk chop!

The education issue is huge - its taken me 38 years since graduation to even come to the lowest level of awareness of the injustices that are even now being perpetrated on native Americans. I think if I'd been exposed to more history and issues in school, I would have stopped and said "hey, we should do something about this" decades ago.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:11 PM on November 16, 2014 [7 favorites]


I was in Monument Valley for a year, in recent time. I was told the Feds started testing wells and started to close them right and left, then had to give up as it was overwhelming and people would have to move. Yellow Sand is a book about one family who lives out in the valley and hauls their own water. They line on top of the an old mining area. One of my students had horses who died, she felt it was from shamanistic activities but you could see the enlarged thyroid of one. A special ed teacher told me the Navajo keep kids home who have severe disabilities, he never saw them.

The Navajo closed a mine opening on top of the mesa above Oljato, they just put it all back in, and sealed the cavity with cement. They are doing this work because the responsible parties don't.

The Navajo had to sue San Juan County School District to get schools in the early eighties. The high school graduation rate for Navajo students has been a steady 61 percent wherever they are, but that was improving and MVHS graduates high number of students if they stay there. New government tracking makes the first High School patterned take the hit for non graduation, if they migrate and fail to graduate elsewhere.

The uranium industry wants to mine, their tailings are blowing and moving at the Blanding site. People only seem to care what they can get from the Navajo, and adopt this "mainstream them, convert them, and get them of the reservation."

Any sympathy you see for them, including a concern for radiation exposure, is part of a scam. Potential new nuclear plant at Green River, NASA, the fix up on our weapons systems, they all need uranium.

The Navajo are a sturdy, joyous, pragmatic, people who know their history, and their challenges. They have a very good health system, they take care of their own. They have a lot of well founded hope for their way of life.
posted by Oyéah at 5:23 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


I attended meetings at the district where the Navajo liaison described his people's migration from the northwest territories between six and seven hundred years ago. A volcanic eruption drove them out. They migrated to Kayenta Arizona. Check that out on a map. I guesstimated it was Mt.Mazama the volcano at Crater Lake No one believes they can be responsible for their history. The DNA people like to counter everything they hear from them.

I was also told once, twenty percent of the Navajo went with the horrid Kit Carson, on the Navajo trail of tears, the rest stayed in the canyons around Black Mountain. Get this, The Navajo National Monument, at Betatakin is actually an Anasazi site, and the Navajo don't go there it is taboo to disturb ruins, and they have no kinship with that people. They pick pie nuts on that mesa only.
posted by Oyéah at 5:47 PM on November 16, 2014 [4 favorites]


The Navajo do not want Uranium mining on their lands. They are cleaning up as they can. At a large tailings site near Mexican Hat, a huge gravel field covers a tailings burial site. People live right There at "Hell Town" the kids call it. At the base of the pit is a wetland, that drains straight into the San Juan River. That river meets Lake Powell, meets the Colorado. With the fracking over on the San Juan around Aneth and Montezuma Creek, a very large tributary of the water for the west takes a double hit.
posted by Oyéah at 6:19 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


The education issue is huge - its taken me 38 years since graduation to even come to the lowest level of awareness of the injustices that are even now being perpetrated on native Americans. I think if I'd been exposed to more history and issues in school, I would have stopped and said "hey, we should do something about this" decades ago.

I have the exact same experience, coming up through public schools in the 60's & 70's. The Texas History class I had in 7th grade was a jingoistic joke of a wallpapering of factoids related to Brave White Heroes. The only natives that got mentioned were the pestilent Comanche raiders, whose depredations let to the creation of the Brave, Strong Texas Rangers who "restored order" to the frontier. I have spent the last 30 years re-educating myself about American history, especially the westward expansion of the European settlers and the attendant conquest of the natives because none of it was taught in school.

The American military essentially poisoned the southwest with radiation during the cold war. The above-ground testing done in the desert sent clouds of radiation a cross the county, but especially effected the small towns directly downwind of the test sites, where people's houses and cars occasionally glowed pink for days after a bomb, and cancers killed thousands. Under The Cloud is a comprehensive survey of the tests and their aftereffects that will set your teeth on edge. Also see 100 Suns and American Ground Zero.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:25 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


The military crashed a fully loaded B52 in the valley, and they still test rockets over the res. There is a conspiracy of scientific apathy and deliberate malfeasance with regard to the radiation and the Navajo . I just heard from two traveling teachers, a PHD, and a 30 year classroom teacher who just left Cameron, where the water is all hauled in. They mentioned it as a description of the place. People who try that plausible deniability science babble over the facts of this poisoning here or anywhere are working for the companies at fault. Everyone on the res knows who hurt them. Navajo health systems knows what happened and is still happening to their people.
posted by Oyéah at 7:52 PM on November 16, 2014 [3 favorites]


Non Navajo people don't live on the res except in approved housing. Other native Americans can with approval from the tribe. You may pay a guide to take you wandering but you need a reason or a guide. There are some public loops and access points.

As I mentioned one special ed teacher told me the Navajo shelter severely disabled children and young adults. The audacity of some to imply mining is going to restart blows my mind. The proximity to the main artery of the southwest's water, has been natural for millennia, the threat to the Colorado from fracking and nuclear pollution is undeniable, especially with a nuclear power plant in planning stages on the Green River.
posted by Oyéah at 12:23 PM on November 17, 2014


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