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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

Your Online Source for NIEHS News

September 2017

St. Lawrence Island welcomes full-time health clinics

Thanks to new full-time health clinics, residents of a remote island in the Bering Sea now have health care much closer to home.

A remote island in the Bering Sea welcomed two full-time health clinics in the St. Lawrence Island communities of Savoonga and Gambell, Aug. 8 and 9 respectively. Residents will no longer have to travel nearly 200 miles by air to Nome, Alaska for important health care services. The new clinics are especially significant given the combination of environmental health risks faced by residents of the island (see sidebar). 

The tribally owned and operated Norton Sound Health Corporation, which runs a hospital in Nome, will operate the clinics. Previously, the Norton Sound Regional Hospital was the closest full-time health care facility for members of the Yupik tribe, who are indigenous to the island.

St. Lawrence Island Before the August opening of two full-time health clinics, residents of remote St. Lawrence Island had to fly to Nome for care of serious health ailments. (Photo courtesy of Google Maps)

The considerable expense of the flight, combined with fog and other weather that could ground planes, meant that by the time residents received evaluation and treatment, cancers and other health issues were often far advanced.

“The Yupik have waited a long time for health care on St. Lawrence. We at NIEHS are thrilled at the news,” said NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., who visited the island three years ago. “Along with that, we hope that their exposures to chemicals in their air, soil, and in the marine mammals they depend on for food will decrease in the coming years.”

Triple threat to health

“It’s not a question of whether you will get cancer, but when,” Vi Waghiyi said three years ago, when NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., visited St. Lawrence Island and other Alaska Native communities.

Waghiyi is a former member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council and a Yupik mother and grandmother. She serves as the Environmental Health and Justice Program Director for the Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

At the time of Birnbaum’s visit, the Environmental Factor reported that the Yupik on St. Lawrence Island faced a triple threat to their health.

  • 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.
  • Contaminants from a former military installation at Gambell.

Birnbaum held meetings and listened as tribal elders shared stories describing their health concerns. Many of the health outcomes they discussed are complicated by limited access to health care, combined with blood levels of contaminants far higher than those in most residents of the lower 48 states.

Birnbaum’s 2014 visit to St. Lawrence Island Birnbaum’s 2014 visit to St. Lawrence Island included a conversation with tribal elders, shown here, and other meetings where she listened to environmental health concerns of residents. (Photo courtesy of John Schelp)

Closing the loop with health care providers

Birnbaum then spoke with Angie Gorn, president and CEO of the Norton Sound Health Corporation. Birnbaum emphasized the high prevalence of cancers, reproductive problems, and developmental disabilities on St. Lawrence Island. Gorn responded with plans to send evaluation teams to the island. Now, new clinics are ready to serve the Yupik.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, J.D., traveled to Savoonga for the opening. “It is exciting, it’s important, and it’s long past due,” she said, according to a story by radio station KNOM.

According to the Norton Sound Health Corporation, both the Savoonga and Gambell clinics will have a full-time physician assistant or nurse practitioner. A dental health aide practitioner will also staff the clinic in Savoonga. Additional health care professionals, including eye care, physicians, audiology, and public health nurses will travel to these and other clinics operated by the corporation.

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