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Cancer among the Navajo

29th November 2006

29112006_nativeamericanstoryteller.jpgCancer rates among the Navajo Native American people in the desert state of Utah doubled during the 1970s. Many blame toxic waste from nearby uranium mines.

Local contractors sourced building materials from the waste piles, which were free, and used them to build the traditional eight-sided dwellings, or hogans.

Some incorporated the materials into walls and floors. Others were exposed via rainwater pools in uranium mine pits, either by drinking it for a number of years and eating meat from animals who also drank there.

The cancer death rate on the reservation - historically much lower than that of the general US population - doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, according to Indian Health Service data. The overall US cancer death rate declined slightly over the same period.

Though no definitive link has been established, researchers say exposure to mining byproducts in the soil, air and water almost certainly contributed to the increase in Navajo cancer mortality.

Mining companies were producing uranium for the US Government's secret Manhattan Project atomic bomb project, and later to fuel the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.

They seldom cleaned up their waste or fenced it off. No warning signs dot the desert.

Government scientists and inspectors tried to warn of the dangers posed by open mines and the waste they produce. But officials at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Indian Health Service pleaded lack of funding and failed to respond adequately.

Some attempts at cleanup have been made, but so far have been incomplete.

Navajo land - bounded by the tribe's four sacred peaks and interwoven with its creation myths - is home to around 180,000 people.

 

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