Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT)
Body Burden Testing of Residents on St. Lawrence Island
Body Burden

Problem The 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.
Objective The 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 caused.
Monitoring Type Body 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 Involvement The community worked closely with the researchers from SUNY in crafting the study, doing the data collection, and communicating the results.
Notable Feature The 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 weather conditions.

BACKGROUND: St. Lawrence Island, a Military Dumping Ground

St. 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 Gambell.

The 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.

Improper 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.

In 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 and people.

Annie 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.

THE PROJECT: Community Partners with Academic Institution to Investigate Body Burden

Collaboration 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.

The 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.

Data 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

The 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.

Taking Action

Once 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.

Once 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.

The 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.

REFLECTIONS: Community Involvement Key to Effective Study

The 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 native language.

In 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.

Dr. 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.

1. 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.

2. Equity. This principle involves sharing the resources of the grant with the community, including hiring local citizens and training community health researchers and aides.

3. 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.

In 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

http://www.akaction.net/ - Alaska Community Action on Toxics
Pam Miller: pkmiller@akaction.net
Press release: http://www.chemicalbodyburden.org/rr_alaska.htm
News story: http://www.adn.com/front/story/1884270p-1998499c.html

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