Alaska community forums highlight tribal health disparities
By Kelly Lenox
NIEHS and NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., traveled to the far north July 20-25 for community forums in Alaska, where she heard firsthand the unusually severe environmental health challenges faced by tribal communities. In addition, Birnbaum met with health care providers to discuss ways to improve environmental public health in the region (see side bar).
Vi Waghiyi, Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) Environmental Health and Justice Program director and member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council, invited Birnbaum to St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Waghiyi noted that Alaska is home to 231 federally recognized tribes, including some of the most highly contaminated populations on the planet.
“It’s not a question of whether you will get cancer, but when,” Waghiyi said. She herself is Yupik, an Alaska Native tribe whose numbers on St. Lawrence Island were far higher before the coming of European whalers, missionaries, and archaeologists. “Help is not coming fast enough,” she said.
“We’re part of the ecosystem”
Birnbaum has held numerous community forums and other meetings in places facing environmental health disparities (see related story). The exchanges allow NIEHS to bring research to bear on public health concerns shared by tribal leaders, regional health care providers, and community organizations.
The Alaska visit underscored how changes in the environment, both local and global, threaten the health of people living traditional lifestyles. “Northern peoples are an indicator for the world,” said an elder in the St. Lawrence Island community of Savoonga. “We’re part of the ecosystem,” he said.
Triple threat on St. Lawrence Island
The Yupik on St. Lawrence Island face a triple threat — air pollutants transported from Asia and North America by global air currents; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, and other chemicals in the marine mammals that constitute their major food source; and contaminants from a former military installation.
With funding from NIEHS, ACAT conducts community-based participatory research with the island leaders. According to early results of one study, blood serum in residents of the island, which is closer to Siberia than to the Alaska mainland, showed elevated levels of PCBs. The levels in those exposed to environmental degradation around the closed military site at Northeast Cape, an area that is an important source of traditional foods, were up to 10 times higher than the average American.
Elders and leaders shared their concerns with Birnbaum, and she participated in a women’s listening circle, as well as a lunch discussion with elders. Immersion into local life through meals and festivities gave the forum a unique flavor.
Coal mining in Chickaloon
Chickaloon Village, northeast of Anchorage, is located on the mainland, in contrast to the island setting of Savoonga, and while residents face some of the same environmental health concerns, there are differences, as well.
Notably, Chickaloon lies near an area of historical coal mining operations, which have led to underground fires and stream pollution. At meetings with tribal elders and members of the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, Birnbaum heard concerns about a proposal for new mining operations adjacent to the community, and shared recommendations for responding to health challenges.
The events ended with visits to grantees at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and a wrap-up meeting with ACAT staff. The NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity has already begun planning for the next community forum in Tucson, Arizona, in the spring of 2015.
Alaska community forum events
Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island
- Dialogue with tribal leaders and community members
- Lunch and listening session with elders
- Women’s listening circle, with women and girls from the island, on women’s and children’s health
- Meeting with marine biologist on connections between human health and marine mammal health
- Roundtable discussion with Norton Sound Health Corporation, the regional health care provider
- Meeting with tribal chief, village council, and health department staff
- Lunch and discussion with elders
- Visit to site of proposed mine
- Meeting with University of Alaska Anchorage grantees, faculty, and students
- Roundtable discussion with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Southcentral Foundation
- Wrap-up with ACAT staff and research collaborators