Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)
Body Burden Testing of Residents on St. Lawrence Island
Northeast Cape of St. Lawrence Island has been contaminated
from historic military operations. The contamination includes
fuel spills of over 220,000 gallons, as well as solvents,
heavy metals, dioxins and furans, asbestos, and polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs). The contamination at Northeast Cape and
Gambell has had a significant impact on both the health
and traditional subsistence activities of the Siberian Yup'ik
people who live in the St. Lawrence Island communities of
Savoonga and Gambell.
goals are to assess the degree of contamination and body
burden levels of residents of St. Lawrence Island, establish
the contribution to these problems of the sites contaminated
by the US military, and ultimately use the collected data
to hold the responsible parties accountable for the damage
burden testing ö blood serum levels of PCBs and pesticides
of residents of St. Lawrence Island, Alaskaö particularly
in communities of Savoonga and Gambell.
community worked closely with the researchers from SUNY
in crafting the study, doing the data collection, and communicating
participation of the Yuā-Pik ö speaking community health
workers was vital to project success. These health workers
collected the blood samples from the participating community
members and shipped them for arrival at State University
of New York (SUNY) in less than 24 hours despite very challenging
St. Lawrence Island, a Military Dumping Ground
Lawrence Island, located just 40 miles from the Russian coast
of Chukotka, was a strategic locale for Cold War activities
of the U.S. military. Today, the Islandās Northeast Cape has
at least 23 sites contaminated with fuel spills totaling over
220,000 gallons , as well as solvents, heavy metals, dioxins
and furans, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Contamination at the Gambell site includes petroleum-impacted
soil and groundwater, PCBs, dioxin, unexploded ordnance, and
large amounts of buried waste. This includes construction, military
debris and possibly hazardous waste in and around the town of
extensive contamination at Northeast Cape and Gambell has had
a significant impact on the health and the traditional subsistence
activities of the Siberian Yup'ik people who live in the St.
Lawrence Island communities of Savoonga and Gambell. For the
many Yup'ik people who do not have the option or means to shop
at a grocery store, areas where they once hunted, fished, and
gathered plant foods are now contaminated and therefore unavailable.
This has had an adverse impact on these communities, who are
accustomed to gathering their sustenance from their environment.
According to Pam Miller of Alaska Community Action on Toxics,
these communities depend more heavily on traditional foods hunted
and gathered from their environment than any other group in
the country. As more individuals become sick with cancer, others
are increasingly afraid to engage in subsistence food gathering
activities in areas they have utilized for many generations.
disposal of PCB-contaminated transformers and other materials
at the military site at Northeast Cape on Saint Lawrence Island
has resulted in elevated levels of PCBs in soils, water, plants,
and fish. Exposure to people may occur through ingestion of
contaminated foods or water, through skin contact or inhalation.
PCBs cause adverse health effects at exceedingly low levels.
addition to contamination due to military and industrial activities,
the Arctic is a hemispheric sink for PCBs and other persistent
organic pollutants emitted elsewhere and transported to the
region through the air. These and other chemicals accumulate
in the cold environment and concentrate within the fats of animals
Alowa, a Yuāpik elder in the community of Savoonga, served as
a health aide in her village for 25 years. Annie observed increases
in cancer and other health problems that she associated with
the military site at Northeast Cape. The study described below
was undertaken in part because of alarms raised by Annie. When
Annie Alowa died in 2002, she was the 14th person in her village
of 900 people to succumb to cancer.
PROJECT: Community Partners with Academic Institution to Investigate
between the villages of Gambell and Savoonga, the State University
of New York (SUNY) School of Public Health and the Environmental
Research Center at Oswego, and Norton Sound Health Corporation
was initiated in 2000. This effort was coordinated by Alaska
Community Action on Toxics as part of a four-year project, Environmental
Justice for Saint Lawrence Island, funded by the National Institute
of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). Dr. David Carpenter
of the State University of New York (SUNY) School of Public
Health was the coordinating scientist for the project. The project
received $200,000 a year for each of four years.
goals of the study were to: 1) assess the degree of contamination
and body burden levels of residents of St. Lawrence Island,
2) establish the contribution to these problems by U.S. military
contaminated sites, and 3) ultimately use the collected data
to hold the responsible parties accountable for the damage caused
to environment and human health.
collection involved taking blood samples from 20 Gambell residents
and 40 Savoonga residents, including 20 who used the Northeast
Cape area regularly, either for traditional food gathering or
because they worked at the base. Community health workers who
spoke the native language, Siberian Yuāpik, collected the samples.
The samples were then kept chilled and conveyed by hand to the
nearest major town from which a FedEX shipment could be made.
The blood samples were analyzed for PCBs and pesticides at the
SUNY laboratory at a cost of about $200/sample.
St. Lawrence Island Residents are Contaminated with
PCBs and Other Chemicals
scientific analyses showed that the average PCB level measured
in 60 Saint Lawrence Island residents was 7.7 ng/g or parts
per billion (ppb, not lipid adjusted). After lipid adjustment,
the average concentration is about 1,500 ppb. According to Dr.
David Carpenter, this is about 5-10 times the PCB body burden
of an average person from the lower 48 states. Agency for Toxic
Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) now estimates the 95th
percentile PCB concentration of the general population at about
1250 ng/g (ppb, after normalizing by a typical lipid content
of 8 g lipid per liter of blood serum). There is little doubt
that even the average concentration of the St. Lawrence island
residents is elevated when compared to the general population.
[The highest levels of PCBs on Saint Lawrence Island were found
in people who spent the most time at or near the formerly used
military site at Northeast Cape.
the results were received from the laboratory, a community-only
meeting was held to discuss the results and the next steps.
The community decided that individual interviews should take
place between Dr. Carpenter and all study participants who wished
to have a personal interview. A translator was made available
for these interviews. Once the personal interviews were conducted,
the community requested that ACAT draft a press release (available
at website provided below), and this statement was released
October 2, 2002.
this statement was released, other communities all across Alaska
contacted ACAT to perform similar studies in partnership with
their community. However, the State of Alaska released a press
statement critical of the study and has generally not been supportive
of ACAT or the communities on St. Lawrence Island in forcing
the military to address the contamination issue. Unfortunately
as a consequence, the data collected through this project has
not formally been accepted by the state of Alaska.
residents are still engaged in ongoing discussions with the
military on cleanup of the contaminated sites and the militaryās
responsibility for damage done to health and environment. Community
members have consistently voiced disapproval of the Army Corps
of Engineersā improper assessment of contaminated areas within
the two military sites on Saint Lawrence Island. Approximately
30 people from Gambell and Savoonga actively participate in
the Restoration Advisory Board, established to provide guidance
to the Corpsā remediation program for the formerly used defense
sites at Gambell and Northeast Cape.
Community Involvement Key to Effective Study
participation of community members began at the very outset
of the project. Two members of each town (Savoonga and Gambel)
were hired by the project as community health aides. These health
aides were trained in techniques to collect environmental samples
like murre eggs and traditional food items and to draw human
blood and conduct interviews with residents of their communities.
These four community members also made a weeklong visit to New
York to visit labs at SUNY where chemical analyses of samples
were performed. They also had an opportunity to meet with Akwesasne
Mohawk community members, with whom Dr. Carpenter has worked
for many years on PCB contamination in the St. Lawrence River.
The participation of the Yuā-Pik ö speaking community health
workers was a key component of this project. The researchers
worked with the community every step of the way, having the
individual interviews and consulting with the elders in the
particular, it was essential to seek and take the advice of
the community leaders and elders. The community wished to have
closed meetings to discuss results and bilingual counselors
on hand for data collection and for individual interviews between
Dr. Carpenter and participants to discuss results. ACAT drafted
the press release of the study results, but sought the approval
of the community regarding content on several occasions through
the drafting process.
David Carpenter and Ron Scrudato had demonstrated through their
work with the Mohawk communities in N.Y. that they were not
only sensitive to community concerns and wishes and listened
to the community, but also truly partnered with the community
in doing the work. They strictly adhere to three working principles
as they work with a community - respect, equity, and empowerment
- derived from traditional Mohawk ethical principles.
Respect. This principle goes beyond tolerance
or just admitting differences. Respect means treating every
human being as an equal, incorporating elements of learning
from others and trying to see the value in others' actions.
Respect is honoring culture and tradition.
Equity. This principle involves sharing the resources
of the grant with the community, including hiring local citizens
and training community health researchers and aides.
Empowerment. One of the major goals of the scientist
should be to build expertise inside communities so that outside
persons will no longer be needed for communities to deal with
the environmental health hazards. This primarily relates to
providing adequate training and helping communities obtain laboratory
resources and technical expertise to use in studying the human
health issues in the community. Empowerment is not usually accomplished
in the short term, often requiring years of education. It is
necessary, however, to incorporate the importance of empowerment
early on in a collaborative relationship. On St. Lawrence Island,
for example, the training program is an integral part of the
citizen-scientist partnership. The training empowers people
to diagnose health problems and develop their own community-based
solutions to problems that will be there for many years to come.
reflecting on the project, Pam Miller wished she had been able
to collect more samples. Many more residents wanted to participate,
but there was a limited budget at the time. A greater number
of samples provides greater statistical power. More importantly,
more samples would have meant involvement of even more members
of the community.
Contacts and Web links
- Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Pam Miller: firstname.lastname@example.org
Press release: http://www.chemicalbodyburden.org/rr_alaska.htm
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