Study probes link between uranium and kidney illness
By Zsombor Peter
CHURCHROCK â€” Roger Lewis and his family have watered their animals at the same well since the 1950s. An old uranium mine still pulsing with radiation, 25 years after shutting down, sits a few miles off.
When two of his relatives started getting sick, he didnâ€™t give the mine much thought. But when Lewis saw the yellow triangle next to it on a list of local wells at the chapter house Wednesday evening, a sign that its waters had potentially dangerous levels of heavy metals for livestock, he began to wonder.
â€œIt makes you think,â€ he said. â€œIs this related to that?â€
The list was part of a presentation by a group of researchers studying the potential links between uranium in a communityâ€™s drinking water supply and its rates of kidney disease. Although the group â€” a collaboration of the University of New Mexico, the Eastern Navajo Health Board, the Southwest Research and Information Center, and the Indian Health Service â€” has been collecting data for the past three years, Wednesday was its first public presentation of any results.
According to the University of New Mexicoâ€™s Dr. Johnnye Lewis, the studyâ€™s principal investigator, and no relation to Roger Lewis, they were finding a link.
She quickly advised the audience not to make too much of the news. The findings are preliminary. Four more years of studies still lay ahead. But the news was telling nonetheless.
â€œThe fact that weâ€™re seeing a relationship at all at this stage … means that itâ€™s unlikely to go away,â€ she said.
With epidemic rates of diabetes, the Navajo Nation already suffers from abnormally high levels of kidney disease. A pair of bean-shaped organs near the lower back, the kidneys have the crucial job of cleaning the blood of the metabolic waste it picks up during its journey through the body before going on its way again.
â€œYou canâ€™t get by very long without kidneys,â€ Lewis said.
If the kidneys fail completely, the patient either has to put up with a lifetime of constant visits with a dialysis machine, which cleans the blood mechanically, or score a kidney transplant, which comes with its own complications.
Although others have studied the links between uranium exposure and kidney disease, this project breaks new ground.
Lewis said the medical literature is filled with some 150 studies on the subject from across the world, with findings that run the gamut. But all of them, she added, deliberately exclude people with diabetes.
It makes sense. The researchers wanted an unencumbered look at what uranium, and uranium alone, can do to the kidneys. But Lewis and her group are interested in what uranium-contaminated drinking water can do to a population â€” like the Navajo â€” that already suffers from a high rate of kidney disease.
Other studies have looked into the effects of various heavy metals on the kidneys of diabetics, but never uranium.
Lewis and her group believe the wells are key. Although itâ€™s the Navajo Nationâ€™s policy that the wells be used for watering stock only, she said, the groupâ€™s surveys indicate that residents drink from them anyway. And thereâ€™s not one well in the area, they found, that at least someone isnâ€™t drinking from.
But because the wells arenâ€™t intended for drinking, no oneâ€™s been keeping a close eye on whatâ€™s in them.
â€œTheyâ€™re not considered to be public water supplies … so theyâ€™re not regularly monitored and theyâ€™re not maintained on a regular basis,â€ Lewis said .
They were surprised to find that most of the 350 people theyâ€™ve surveyed so far are hooked up to regulated water supplies. But most of them also chose to drink from the wells anyway. According to the survey, most people have more faith in the quality of the well water than in the water coming out of their taps.
But as the researchers are finding, that may not always be the case. Of the wells theyâ€™ve tested so far, theyâ€™ve found levels of uranium and arsenic above or near the federal governmentâ€™s maximum contamination levels for drinking water in four wells, and of lead, mercury and radium in two.
â€œAs with everything else, itâ€™s their choice to use them or not,â€ said Bess Seschillie, project coordinator for the Dine Network for Environmental Health, a creation of the Eastern Navajo Health Board. Without the authority to shut the wells down, she said, â€œall we can do is educate the people.â€
Eventually, the group hopes to survey 1,300 people in the Church Rock and Baca-Prewitt Chapters, and take blood and urine samples from 450. By then, it hopes to have a model it can use to predict the areas around old uranium mines where people face the highest risk of kidney disease, across the Eastern Agency, the Navajo Nation, and even other tribes.
â€œSo we really see this as important for understanding uranium contamination and environmental risk … on a much wider scale,â€ said Lewis.
â€œThere is some evidence that if you detect (kidney) disease early enough and you limit the exposure,â€ she said, â€œthen you can reverse it.â€
If communities know the risks they face, they may have that chance.
â€œItâ€™s not just about us,â€ Seschillie said. â€œItâ€™s about our future and our kids, and we want them to continue to live out here.â€
Roger Lewis herds more than 50 head of cattle, horses and sheep across this land. He hopes his children and grandchildren will be able to do the same.