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Focusing on tribal environmental health

Sydelle Harrison, center, a PhD candidate at Oregon State, received an award for her poster from Linda Birnbaum, PhD, left, director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, and Stuart Harris, from Cayuse Environmental.

Molly Kile, an associate professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health program, helped host the third Tribal Environmental Health Summit. 

In late June, attendees gathered in the Oregon State LaSells Stewart Center to share their latest research on issues that affect environmental health among Native Americans.

More than 130 individuals participated, coming from tribes, universities and government agencies. The event, supported by a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) grant, allowed scientists to network and explore career paths, while stakeholders learned about issues that affect tribal communities.

Common ground

“We brought together people from different backgrounds, communities, agencies and institutions who all shared a deep interest in community-based research and environmental health issues that affect tribal communities,” says Molly, ScD, the 2018 conference chair.

The summits, which are held every two years, have helped build a broad network of Native American and Alaskan Native researchers. Speakers presented updates and findings on issues affecting Native Americans, including topics on tribal environmental health, building sustainable research partnerships, advancing tribal research initiatives and exploring the roles of regulatory agencies and advocates.

Among the summit attendees were 49 students, who discussed their research during a poster session and networked with professionals in the field.

Indigenous expertise

“Many of the projects we heard about at the summit include an outreach and educational component, so that those in a tribal community understand the implications of the research,” says Symma Finn, PhD, program officer in the NIEHS Population Health Branch.

“My experience working with tribal communities and tribal-affiliated researchers is that they are keenly aware of environmental impacts on health, and, in fact, may know more about their local conditions and risks than an investigator coming into their community to assess their risks from environmental exposures,” she says.

A vulnerable population

NIEHS research addresses many of the exposures and risks that tribal communities face. Molly believes this is crucial. She says environmental pollution disproportionately impacts tribal people because it contaminates foods and resources they depend on.

Examples include contamination of rivers and lakes by industrial pollutants, pesticides, and mining operations, such as uranium and the chemicals released during the Gold King Mine Spill.

Additional environmental challenges include limited access to fresh and affordable foods, health effects of climate change, and contamination of traditional foods, such as that caused by organic pollutants in the Arctic.

Molly says these and other issues highlighted during the summit are not isolated to tribal communities. Rather, they are of global importance. “We showcased how research conducted with, and by, tribes helps improve the health of their communities and can also be incorporated into international policies that benefit everyone in the world,” she says.

This article is re-published with permission from NIEHS.