Many American Indian and Alaska Native tribes across the U.S. are finding their traditional ways of life disrupted and their health impacted by environmental exposures. 

“When you put a new road in your community, I see in mine a new oil and gas development that makes changes to the land and the animals we use to feed our families,” Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an Inupiat leader and environmental justice advocate in Nuiqsut, Alaska, said during a Tuesday APHA Annual Meeting session on “Opportunities in Tribal Public and Environmental Health.” 

Ahtuangaruak spoke movingly about her son being unable to access traditional hunting grounds to carry out an important generational ritual because a mining development has been built there. Now a new pipeline is planned for a nearby river through multiple communities and another development is slated for land occupied by herds of caribou.

“We want to continue our way of life,” she said. “We depend on that river and those caribou to feed our family.”

Ahtuangaruak, a member of the Tribal Public and Environmental Health Think Tank, stressed the importance of tradition and culture to the health and well-being of her community now and for future generations.

“I do this work because of the Trans Alaska Pipeline and what it has done to my small Alaskan village of 500 people,” she told session attendees.

Ahtuangaruak sees a correlation between the number of flares in the area and the incidence of asthma in her community. Flaring is the controlled burning of natural gas in oil and gas exploration, production and processing operations and produces emissions that cause air pollution.

“I can see 30 or more flares on at night in the Arctic,” she said. “In California, they only allow 10 flares in a year. If it’s important to protect health in California, why is it not important to protect the health of my small village?”

Sharunda Buchanan, director of priority projects for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, outlined some of her agency’s environmental health work in Indian country. That includes providing technical assistance, collecting and analyzing samples, providing data and partnering to develop pilot programs. She mentioned its work with APHA to convene the Tribal Public and Environmental Health Think Tank to promote the voice of tribal communities and raise awareness.

“Protection of people in communities, including tribal nations, from environmental health threats and exposures is one of the core functions of our agency,” Buchanan told attendees.

Yasmin Bowers, a senior environmental health fellow at APHA, worked on a study with the think tank that identified opportunities for NCEH and ATSDR to better support tribal environmental and social determinants of health, such as data collection and funding.

“There are health disparities in American Indian and Alaska Native communities that are caused by historical trauma and exacerbated by climate change,” Bowers said. “This report is a big step forward in supporting the social determinants of health and environmental health in tribal communities.”

Susan Hanson, an environmental scientist and consultant to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Pocatello, Idaho, talked about the unique exposures indigenous people face.

“Tribal populations consume greater amounts of fish and game and spend a longer amount of time in the environment as part of their way of life,” she told the audience. “And if tribal lifeways and resulting exposures are not considered, then risk assessments are inaccurate and not protective.”

Contaminated sites, new chemicals in commerce and regulatory programs require risk assessments be completed to determine an acceptable amount of contaminants people can be exposed to. Many times, the official response when environmental hazards are found is to post warning signs. 

But as Hanson said, “You can’t tell indigenous people to stop fishing and hunting because of unacceptable levels of contaminants. It’s not an option for them. We need to be culturally sensitive to tribal needs, develop relationships, identify barriers, come to a common understanding.”

(Photo by Eyecrave, courtesy iStockphoto)