UNM College of Pharmacy's Dr. Johnnye Lewis
UNM College of Pharmacy's Dr. Johnnye Lewis

The University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy has landed a $3.5-million grant to study the exposure of Native American communities to metal mixtures from unremediated abandoned hardrock mine sites, like the Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colorado.

The award from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities will enable UNM researchers to form the Center for Native American Environmental Health Equity Research (Native EH Equity), which also will provide training and community environmental health workshops in collaboration with tribal colleges throughout the western U.S.

Nearly half of the U.S. Native American population lives in 13 western states among an estimated 161,000 abandoned hardrock mines, more than 4,000 of which are abandoned uranium mines. These abandoned mines left behind vanadium, arsenic, copper, lead, manganese, nickel and other metals in water and soil. Such mines have received increased national scrutiny since August, when 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater were accidentally released from the Gold King Mine, an abandoned gold mine in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.  

“With hundreds of thousands of these abandoned mines, we need to know how they affect this population,” says Johnnye Lewis, PhD, director of the UNM College of Pharmacy’s Community Environmental Health Program. “The recent Gold King Mine spill that released millions of gallons of wastewater carrying mixtures of heavy metals is a prime example of why it’s critical that we understand the health and environmental impacts of these abandoned mines to Native American communities at risk from exposures.”

In earlier research on the Navajo Nation, Lewis revealed a link between kidney disease and direct exposure to uranium and associated metals during the period of active mining. Her research also showed a higher risk for cardiovascular and autoimmune disease and immune system dysfunction for those with chronic ongoing exposures to waste.

Tribal communities’ reliance on natural resources to maintain traditional diets, lifestyles, customs and languages often creates direct and frequent contact with toxic metal mixtures from unremediated mine sites, according to Lewis. This contact can happen through multiple pathways, including dust inhalation, drinking water and ingestion of food sources contaminated by migration of the wastes. Disparities in infrastructure – especially drinking water supplies – exacerbate these exposures, as do social inequities like poverty and limited access to resources in rural and isolated locations, Lewis says. 

She and UNM Associate Professor Melissa Gonzales, PhD, are leading the Native EH Equity research team, which includes community members, scientists and tribal staff from the Navajo Nation, Crow Nation and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, with support from Pacific Northwest Coast tribes (Micah and Nisqually), which will be actively involved within the next two years. Native EH Equity will provide research partnerships to answer tribal questions and infrastructure to link training to tribal colleges and mentorship of junior faculty and students working on these issues.

Team collaborators include research experts from the UNM School of Engineering and Earth and Planetary Sciences, the University of Washington, Montana State University and the Southwest Research & Information Center.