Inquiring Minds - Navajo Cancer Research

Flagstaff, AZ – Studies suggest there is an unusually high rate of cancer among Native Americans who live in areas where uranium was mined. Analytical chemist Jani Ingram is wading through water samples for carcinogens that may be impacting her tribe.

This is Inquiring Minds, insights from the campus of Northern Arizona University.

Born into two clans - the charcoal and the red house clan - Jani Ingram fondly recalls ceremonial Navajo weddings, corn pollen blessings and visits to her grandmother's northern New Mexico home in Tohatchi.

Other Navajo Nation members have memories that are not so fond. These are stories about the yellow monster, accounts of sickness and death associated with the yellow dirt where nothing grows.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the interest in nuclear weapons generated an interest in uranium and the spread of open-pit uranium mines in northern Arizona. Despite clean-up efforts, tailings remain at abandoned sites, and it is feared low-level radiation is seeping into water sources.

Ingram is able to tap into the well of Native American student researchers at NAU to help collect samples from water, soil, plants and livestock. This biochemistry professor is analyzing the environmental exposure of uranium on Navajo communities and people who live very close to the land.

Working with the Arizona Cancer Center, Ingram is comparing data from sheep raised in Cameron, where uranium was mined, with that in Leupp, where there were no mines.

("In the Leupp area there was no mining and what we found is, you know, a factor of about 10 higher uranium concentrations.")

Ingram stresses that a lot more research needs to be done. But she hopes her work will help scientists understand the connection between uranium and cancer. It also may help her tribe dig deeper for answers and cleaner drinking water, out of the reach of the yellow monster.