Radiation Illnesses And COVID-19 In The Navajo Nation

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Above photo: A uranium mining area in New Mexico. Gravel in the background covers mine tailings. Netherzone via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

The COVID-19 pandemic is wiping out Indigenous elders and with them the cultural identity of Indigenous communities in the United States. But on lands that sprawl across a vast area of the American West, the Navajo (or Diné) are dealing not just with the pandemic, but also with another, related public health crisis. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 is killing Native Americans at nearly three times the rate of whites, and on the Navajo Nation itself, about 30,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and roughly 1,000 have died. But among the Diné, the coronavirus is also spreading through a population that decades of unsafe uranium mining and contaminated groundwater has left sick and vulnerable.

In Indigenous lands where nuclear weapons testing took place during the Cold War and the legacy of uranium mining persists, Indigenous people are suffering from a double whammy of long-term illnesses from radiation exposure and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, we have not witnessed in the mainstream media and policy outlets a frank discussion of how the two public health crises have created an intractable situation for Indigenous communities. The Diné are drinking poisoned water, putting them at risk for more severe coronavirus infections.

From 1944 until 1986, 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted on Navajo lands. At present, there are more than 520 abandoned uranium mines, which for the Diné represents both their nuclear past as well as their radioactive present in the form of elevated levels of radiation in nearby homes and water sources. Due to over four decades of uranium mining that supplied the US government and industry for nuclear weapons and energy, radiation illnesses characterize everyday Diné life.

The water crisis

The Navajo Nation comprises a land area larger than several US states. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 15 percent of Diné do not have access to piped water in their homes—down from 30 percent in 2003. The nonprofit Navajo Water Project says the Diné are 67 times more likely to be without running water or a toilet connected to sewer lines than others in the United States. As a result, many are forced to drive or even walk several miles to the nearest communal water station. Some instead get water from an unregulated source, like a livestock trough. But research shows uranium mining may have contaminated many wells on the reservation.

A large portion of the area’s groundwater has been contaminated with uranium as well as other mining by-products like arsenic that were mobilized by the mining operations, according to researchers who presented their findings at a 2019 American Chemical Society conference. Another recent study found that 11 percent of unregulated wells tested on Diné lands exceeded the maximum contaminant levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency for uranium. Seventeen percent contained high levels of arsenic.

Unfortunately for the Diné, exposure to uranium increases the danger of developing some of the same comorbid conditions that put people at higher risk for severe COVID-19, including kidney disease and different types of cancer. Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cardiovascular disease and lung, bladder, kidney, and skin cancers.

According to a 2019 report by the environmental groups U.S. Water Alliance and DigDeep about access to water, the number of cases for gastric cancers doubled in the 1990s in the Diné areas where uranium mining had taken place.

The Navajo Cancer Workgroup, which includes representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as nonprofits, universities, and government agencies, concluded that the Diné die from stomach, liver, and kidney cancers at two to four times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. One report titled “Cancer among the Navajo” covered the time period between 2005 and 2013 and analyzed the Diné’s increased mortality rates in the context of their environment, including their contaminated water supply.

“(I)t is notable that this report … found elevated rates of stomach, kidney, liver and gallbladder cancers. … For example, exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been associated with higher risk of liver, kidney and bladder cancers, and one study that tested wells on the Navajo Nation found elevated uranium, arsenic and bicarbonate concentrations in several wells used for drinking water.”

The Diné and COVID-19

Setting aside the issue of what pre-existing conditions are tied to contaminated water, researchers have found that a lack of indoor plumbing is in and of itself associated with COVID-19 infection among Indigenous groups. In a study published last August in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, researchers found a relatively high percentage of households on Native American reservations lacked complete indoor plumbing. While only 0.4 percent of homes in the United States lacked indoor plumbing, on Indigenous reservations that number was 1.09 percent. For the Navajo Nation, it was 18 percent. The authors wrote that the relationship between a lack of indoor plumbing and COVID-19 cases was “the most statistically significant finding” in their study.

The Diné have paid a heavy toll during the pandemic.

According to the Navajo Times, there had been at least 27,887 reported positive cases of COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation by late January, including 989 deaths.

The actual death toll from the pandemic is likely far higher than what has been reported; in many cases COVID-19 is not listed on death certificates, even when deaths can be attributed to the coronavirus crisis. But these so-called “excess deaths” are not evenly distributed across the country; more people have died in economically disadvantaged areas like the Navajo Nation than elsewhere.

A preprint study by researchers at Boston University and other institutions found more excess deaths attributable to the pandemic in counties with high levels of income inequality, low levels of homeownership, and more Black residents. Along with Blacks and Latinos, Indigenous people in the United States have been particularly affected by COVID-19.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in August noted that Native Americans are 3.5 times more likely to have a confirmed case of COVID-19 than  white people. Indeed, earlier on in the pandemic, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York and New Jersey for the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rate in the country.

Language barriers

It’s not surprising that the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice study from last August found that COVID-19 cases were less likely to occur in Indigenous community homes where only English is spoken. Some Diné face severe language barriers to understanding important health information; they have faced the same barriers to addressing health issues since at least the days of uranium mining.

In the August report, researchers found that along with lack of access to indoor plumbing, English-speaking ability was associated with rates of COVID-19 infection. The authors conclude, “the social conditions defining day-to-day life,” such as “whether or not families have access to water and whether or not health directives are accessible to their understanding,” are highly consequential.

The Diné have faced significant linguistic obstacles to protecting their health from the harmful effects of uranium. The Diné call the substance leetso and used it in sand paintings and body adornment for many years. But the Dine did not have a word for radiation, which has limited their ability to discuss contamination. As a result, the concept of radiation hasn’t been a part of Diné culture despite its impact on Diné bodies.

According to social scientist Susan Dawson, the author of a 1992 study published in Human Organization, Diné miners were never “informed of the dangers of radiation, nor were they informed of their rights under state workers’ compensation laws when they became ill.” Most didn’t speak English, the language of their predominantly white managers. In the book, The Navajo People and Uranium Mining, a Diné miner named George Tutt recalled shoveling uranium ore and radioactive waste by hand. He and others, he said, “were not told to wash or anything like that.”

Philipp Harrison, president of the Uranium Radiation Victims Committee in Arizona and himself a Diné, expressed his outrage and grief at the World Uranium Hearings, a global gathering of Indigenous activists, scientists, and environmental groups held in Salzburg, Austria, in September 1992. Harrison witnessed several former miners die from lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses, including his father, who was only 43 years old when he died. “It was very, very hard for me to see him die a painful death. … He weighed only 90 pounds when he left us. I have never witnessed anything like the way he died.”

When mining companies were extracting 30 million tons of uranium from the Navajo Nation, language barriers prevented miners from getting accurate information about the risks of their jobs. Likewise, those barriers have impeded the families of miners who died from conditions linked to working in the uranium mines from seeking compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which will sunset in 2022.

Today most young Diné speak and write English, but older members of the community are not always comfortable in the language. The August report on COVID-19 and Indigenous communities found that just 32 percent of people in the Navajo Nation live in English-only households. When Dawson interviewed a widow whose husband worked in a mine, the researcher wanted to know why her interviewee did not file for occupational illness compensation. The widow responded that, “she felt intimidated by the process because of being told she had to write letters,” while she “had no stationery or stamps and could not write in English, and so decided against it.”

In a testimony at the 1992 World Uranium Hearing, Laurie Goodman, a Diné and member of the non-profit organization Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, said that, “[o]ur lands are chosen [for uranium mining], because our people are isolated and lack access to technical information. Most have only a basic level of formal education and have little organized political opposition. When a society does not have words in their language, translation[s] for ‘hazardous,’ ‘toxic,’ and ‘poison’, it is a clear indication that education is needed for affected people to make informed decisions that determine their destiny.”

Environmental remediation

The Navajo Nation Council banned uranium mining under the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, but much of the mining contamination remains. While the Environmental Protection Agency says that $1.7 billion has been secured through legal settlements with mining companies and other agreements dating back to at least 2014 for cleanup at 219 of the 523 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, the Diné say little of the work has been completed. “The biggest thing is that out of the $1.7 billion dollars I think the total amount that has been spent as of today is $116 million on studies. … Out of the 219 that were funded, not one site is 100 percent ready to be cleaned up,” Navajo Council speaker Seth Damon said last year, according to the Navajo Times. The newspaper reported that the Environmental Protection Agency hopes to begin cleaning up the sites by 2024.

Indigenous organizations are doing a tremendous amount of work to address radiation poisoning and water scarcity in the Diné community. These include the Red Water Pond Road Community Association where activists like Terry Keyanna are fighting for environmental justice every day. The Navajo Water Project, a section of the larger non-profit DigDeep, is doing valuable work to address the lack of access to clean water in the Diné community. Since last March, Gavin Noyes and Woody Lee at Utah Diné Bikeyah have provided food and supplies to more than 800 homes, and delivered “175,000 gallons of new water storage capacity to over 600 families without water.” The Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund is another grassroots organization, started with a GoFundMe page created by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch that raises money for two weeks’ worth of food for Diné and Hopi families in self-quarantine. Their work is a pivotal lifeline in pandemic times.

In the early days of President Joe Biden’s term, he issued an executive order to establish the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to ensure an equitable pandemic response and recovery. His administration has officially recognized “systemic and structural racism in many facets of our society” as a driving factor behind the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. We have reason to hope that help is at hand. Systemic racism, language barriers, mistrust of federal agencies, misinformation about uranium mining, preexisting medical conditions from chronic radiation illnesses, and an acute water scarcity make the Diné uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic. The double public health crises in the Navajo Nation need our urgent attention and immediate assistance.

Acknowledgement: The authors thank Zia Mian and Robert Alvarez for comments on an earlier draft of the essay. A UROP Award from Boston University in fall 2020 facilitated this research.