A health crisis which exists in Chile and Bangladesh, also has profound dangers right here in the Southwestern United States. 

Arsenic, a toxic, chemical element, is linked to a number of adverse health issues, like diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer when people are exposed to it. 

 Its presence and impact in those two countries, and on the Navajo Nation, was studied jointly by University of New Mexico Associate Professor Yan Lin and her doctoral student Daniel Beene in the Department of Geography & Environmental Studies and the UNM Metals Exposure and Toxicity Assessment on Tribal Lands in the Southwest (UNM METALS) Superfund Research Program Center, and a team of four others from Columbia University and University of California (UC Berkeley) Superfund Research Programs. 

Thanks to a $75,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies (NIEHS), The team developed a proposal with a common goal: to find and highlight the sources of arsenic in these different areas. 

Yan Lin

“For all of us we had different sources, but we all had a common question: how do we better understand the source?” Lin said.  

The research team's studies sought to prove that using data on arsenic in drinking water alone could be underestimating total arsenic exposure.  

Over the course of two years, Lin and Beene met virtually with  team members, in addition to an in-person workshop at Columbia University in February 2020. Although each university’s researchers were looking into three completely different areas, collaboration was critical. 

“We had to be creative to find something in common. It's a lot of work. We had to find a way it worked for everyone,” she said. 

Beene led the efforts on data harmonization to ensure the common data dictionary, data analytical approaches, and presentation were adopted, which is critical for this project.   

“Since we can’t share protected health information really easily, we had to feel confident that we could share analytical code with each institution and expect that the results are telling us the right thing,” Beene said.  

After detailed modeling, sources of arsenic boiled down to water across all three locations. Despite its presence in food for Chile and Bangladesh, the Navajo Nation presented an additional unique contributor–home dust.  

This is one of the very first papers to present data on dust in peoples' homes collected from the Navajo Birth Cohort Study. 

The longstanding issue of pollution and its resulting health dangers for tribal communities is one which has been slow to be resolved. Starting in 1944, there were decades of uranium ore extraction throughout the Navajo Nation. Thirty million tons later, 500 abandoned uranium mines and their lingering contamination remains. 

“The main thing it comes down to is how do you do the cleanup of the mine waste. It’s easier said than done,” she said. 

Finding additional sources of arsenic exposure also can help better understanding and future studies on chemical exposure and disease in humans. 

You can read the full research paper at NIEHS. Learn more about Lin’s work and other exciting research underway at the Center for the Advancement of Spatial Informatics Research and Education (ASPIRE).