Open Access Research

Development of risk maps to minimize uranium exposures in the Navajo Churchrock mining district

Jamie L deLemos1*, Doug Brugge2, Miranda Cajero3, Mallery Downs3, John L Durant1, Christine M George4, Sarah Henio-Adeky5, Teddy Nez5, Thomas Manning6, Tommy Rock7, Bess Seschillie6, Chris Shuey5 and Johnnye Lewis3

Author Affiliations

1 Tufts University School of Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, 200 College Ave Anderson Hall, Medford, MA, 02155, USA

2 Tufts Community Research Center, Department of Public Health and Family Medicine, 136 Harrison Ave Boston, MA, 02138, USA

3 Community Environmental Health Program, College of Pharmacy, MSC09 5360, 1 University of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM, 87131-0001, USA

4 50 Haven Ave B924, NY, 10032, USA

5 Southwest Research and Information Center, Uranium Impact Assessment Program, 105 Stanford SE PO Box 4524, Albuquerque, NM, 87196, USA

6 Eastern Navajo Health Board, PO Box 1938, Crownpoint, NM, 87313, USA

7 College of Pharmacy, University of New Mexico, 2505 Marble NE, Albuquerque, 87131-0001, New Mexico, USA

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Environmental Health 2009, 8:29  doi:10.1186/1476-069X-8-29

Published: 9 July 2009

Abstract

Background

Decades of improper disposal of uranium-mining wastes on the Navajo Nation has resulted in adverse human and ecological health impacts as well as socio-cultural problems. As the Navajo people become increasingly aware of the contamination problems, there is a need to develop a risk-communication strategy to properly inform tribal members of the extent and severity of the health risks. To be most effective, this strategy needs to blend accepted risk-communication techniques with Navajo perspectives such that the strategy can be used at the community level to inform culturally- and toxicologically-relevant decisions about land and water use as well as mine-waste remediation.

Objective

The objective of this study was to develop GIS-based thematic maps as communication tools to clearly identify high risk exposure areas and offer alternatives to minimize public and ecological health impacts.

Methods

Thematic maps were produced that incorporated data derived from environmental sampling and public health surveys. The maps show the location and quality of unregulated water resources and identify regulated water sources that could be used as alternatives. In addition, the maps show the location of contaminated soil and sediment areas in which disturbance of surface deposits should be avoided. Preliminary feedback was collected from an informal Navajo working group to assess the clarity and efficacy of this proposed communication method.

Results

The working group found the maps to be both clear and effective, and made suggestions for improvements, such as the addition of more map features. The working group predicted that once the maps are presented to the public, water hauling and soil use behaviors will change, and dialogue with chapter officials will be initiated to accelerate further risk reduction efforts.

Implications

Because risk communication is complicated by language barriers, lack of infrastructure, and historical mistrust of non-Navajo researchers, mapping provides an easily interpretable medium that can be objectively viewed by community members and decision makers to evaluate activities that affect toxicant exposures.