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Doctor Discusses Research Showing High Levels Of Uranium In Navajo Women And Babies

Ed Williams / KUNM
Bertha Nez stands near an area of high radiation close to her home in 2015.

As the U.S. prepared to detonate the first atomic bomb in New Mexico in the ’40s, the federal government sought uranium on Navajo land. Decades later, hundreds of mines still haven’t been contained, and the health impacts are severe and sometimes fatal. New research is showing some babies there are being born with the radioactive metal in their bodies. Chief Medical Officer of Navajo Area Indian Health Service Dr. Loretta Christensen spoke with KUNM about the study and what researchers are finding so far.

LORETTA CHRISTENSEN: Some early findings is that over 36 percent of the men and 26 percent of the women in Navajo Nation have concentrations of uranium in their urine that exceeds any level found in the highest 5 percent of the U.S.—so very much on the high end of those levels.

We are also finding some babies are being born with similar concentrations of uranium at the extreme levels as well. And this continues with testing during the first year of life.

We’ve also found that looking at neurodevelopmental screening in the first year of life, is that these children have slower development in many of the domains that are tested, and they see this really at 10 months of age is where it’s pretty obvious.

Another concern is that there seems to be an increase in autism spectrum disorders.

KUNM: Uranium has such a long half-life, does that mean that the babies who are born with uranium in their systems, are they going to carry that with them their whole life?

CHRISTENSEN: It is quite possible that they will always have some uranium in their system. Our hope is that we can mitigate the effects of that by keeping them healthy, by checking kidney function, by helping with childhood development, by screening for cancer so that if it does occur we catch it very early. We do know now we can help in some ways to mitigate worsening of disease by being very proactive.

KUNM: There are hundreds of uranium mining sites all over the Navajo Nation that still haven’t been cleaned up by the feds. Beyond environmental exposure, do you have a sense of specifically how and why women and babies end up with uranium in their bodies?

CHRISTENSEN: No, we don’t know yet. We know that people that lived in those areas were certainly at risk. There’s a thing called downwinders where they weren’t necessarily next to the insult, but they were close enough that with the wind and with our weather, that a lot of the toxicity was spread around further than anticipated.

And then we know that before everyone was aware, that they used some of the sand and stuff from the old sites for construction material. It was used in homes, and then they were finding that they had high levels of either uranium or radon in their walls, or in their floors, or things that they were mixing sand with.

Groundwater was affected by the uranium, and therefore people and their livestock were drinking water that was contaminated.

Obviously we’re very concerned about looking at environmental contamination in moms and babies, because we’re saying, “Is this passing on? Is it now showing up in our babies? And, unfortunately, the answer is: it appears it is.

KUNM: People understanding that uranium is adversely affecting their health—and that it was imposed on their land and on their homes and on their bodies—does it affect their desire to reach out for medical care?

CHRISTENSEN: Absolutely. In any medical population you have, there are those who are justifiably upset, and they should be. And then there are those that, “OK I’d just rather not know. You know, I’m just going to live my life and whatever happens happens. And I don’t need to know all those details.”

And then there’s going to be others that say, “I need to understand what happened, why it happened, why someone didn’t do anything.” And we see that whole spectrum of reactions.

Awareness is more than just saying, “Hey, did you know you might be exposed to uranium?” Awareness is actually understanding what that means. And I think that’s where we need to continue our efforts, is not just saying, “OK, you lived in a uranium area.” It’s more like, “OK, this is what could happen, and this is what we need to tell you, and this is what we’d like you to do to optimize your health.” And then they will make a choice, a personal choice. But I think we owe them the information so that they are fully aware what they might be facing.

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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