Diabetes on Tap

A partnership between the University of Arizona and Diné College is studying the connection between arsenic-contaminated drinking water and diabetes. It’s part of a larger effort to improve access to clean water for residents of the Navajo Nation.

By Melanie Lenart

Participants in the Farming is Life program take samples from an irrigation gate valve near the San Juan River. Photos courtesy of Neilroy Singer.

While many American households have access to purified water just by turning their faucets, close to one in three Americans living on the Navajo Nation work hard for their water. Some families rely on water from livestock tanks, while many others haul it in from afar. Some residents even have to climb cliffs to get their water from a spring.

After going to all that trouble, they can’t even be sure that the water is clean, as many wells remain “unregulated”—in other words, untested for contaminants. Researchers have found that many of these unregulated wells have higher-than-permitted levels of arsenic. While arsenic can occur in soils naturally, high levels also result from mining practices.

Arsenic’s dangers are well known—it is toxic and a carcinogen—but there is growing evidence that it also contributes to diabetes. Today, faculty from the University of Arizona’s Superfund Research Center are working in partnership with Diné College, a tribally controlled college with campuses in Tsaile, Arizona and Shiprock, New Mexico, to better understand the connection and to improve access to contaminant-free water.

 “Our new focus is on the linkages of diabetes and arsenic in mine-laden waters because there’s been research indicating that arsenic in water is actually contributing to diabetes,” said University of Arizona  hydrologist Karletta Chief, a member of the Navajo Nation, during a Zoom call with Native Science Report. “One in three Native Americans have diabetes and at the same time tribes are disproportionately impacted by mining.”

Diabetes and its many complications

Indigenous communities often have high levels of diabetes, a condition that puts people at a higher risk of mortality from Covid and other diseases as well as being dangerous in its own right. Efforts to reduce the diabetes risk for those living on tribal lands typically focus on improving diet by promoting healthier, more traditional foods, such as the “Three Sisters”—corn, squash and beans—that provide the foundation of Indigenous agriculture.

The partnership between Diné College and the University of Arizona is working on such food sovereignty initiatives, but also taking it a step further by working to improve drinking water—and all in a way that suits the sprawling Navajo Nation, where many rural homes lack electricity as well as treated water. They’re striving to not only identify the areas of concern but to find solutions, such as developing off-grid water purification units.

It’s an issue that of special concern to Karletta Chief, who grew up in Black Mesa, a part of the reservation impacted by coal mining operations. Along with about 30 percent of residents on the Navajo Nation, Chief grew up there without running water, as she mentioned during a webinar about arsenic and uranium levels of unregulated wells. “And today, my parents, my family, they have to haul water.”

The Covid pandemic drove residents to rely even more on unregulated wells, typically designed for livestock use, as the lockdown limited travel. During the initial onslaught of Covid in 2020, mortality rates on the Navajo Nation surpassed even than those in New York City, as pointed out in an NSF-funded video describing some of the University of Arizona’s work with the tribal nation.

Arsenic and diabetes

From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that diabetes increased the risk of mortality from Covid. It’s also been well reported that diets featuring the white flour, sugar, lard and cheese distributed by government programs have contributed to the rise of diabetes across tribal nations. What few people recognized until recently is that the risk of diabetes increases with exposure to higher levels of arsenic than regulated drinking sources would allow.

Donna D. Zhang, associate director the Superfund Research Center, found that high levels of arsenic can affect insulin production, lipid profiles and blood sugar levels in ways that can contribute to the onset of Type 2 diabetes, the “adult onset” diabetes that afflicts 90 percent or more of the 34 million Americans with diabetes.

Chief works alongside Zhang at the University of Arizona’s Superfund Research Center, as the Community Engagement Core Lead—one of many titles worn by this researcher whose Extension work entails working with Indigenous communities across Arizona. When she speaks about these projects, she swings from one funding source to another to describe their efforts. 

Along with Superfund support, Chief and others cobble together millions in funding from sources that include the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the UA Arizona Institutes for Resilience, and the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environmental and Social Justice. Also key is a National Science Foundation program known as FEWSS, for Indigenous Food, Energy, and Water Security and Sovereignty, which supports the work of 39 graduate students, many of them Indigenous.

“The key is we’re leveraging a lot of our existing partnerships to do this project,” Chief explained, referring to the partnership with Diné College.

Diné College also has its share of grants working toward these efforts, including from the USDA’s Tribal College Research Grant Program and National Institute of Food and Agriculture, a Gallup-based non-profit organization called the Sixth World Generation Team and the National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program, known as TCUP.

Testing for arsenic in crops and water

Neilroy Singer, an environmental scientist with the Diné Environmental Institute of the tribal college, has been involved with some of those initiatives. Singer, who spoke with Native Science Report by telephone on a chilly day from the college’s Shiprock North Campus in New Mexico, said he met Chief in 2016. It wasn’t long before they started planning projects together, including a “Farming is Life” project in 2017 to test the water, soil and crops of 10 participating Diné farmers for lead and arsenic contamination.

Chief secured a Haury grant to provide equipment for testing and analyzing the samples, he said, which fortunately all came out “in the green,” with no indication of lead or arsenic issues. Her team of researchers and grad students also offers presentations for a 10-week summer program Diné College offers for STEM students through a TCUP grant, according to Singer, who helps organize the program. The university’s grad students participate in research activities with Diné College students, testing the water of the San Juan River for lead, arsenic and other potential contaminants.

Diné College students and a community health representative (in purple shirt) learn how to test pH as part of the college’s Farming is Life project at Dine College’s Shiprock campus.

In February, he trained at the university so he can teach students this year how to build a water filtration unit that faculty from the university helped them design, he said. The filtration unit runs on solar power so it can serve to clean out contaminants, including arsenic and uranium, from unregulated wells that are nowhere near electrical sources.

Chief said they are currently testing the solar-powered “nanofiltration” units at sites where people have water quality issues but no access to electricity.

“All the individuals that we’re working with don’t have access to potable water,” she said.

Unregulated wells used for drinking water

Because so many residents living on the Navajo reservation lack easy access to high-quality drinking water, they can turn to unregulated wells—many of them located near some of the 500 abandoned uranium mines on the Nation. Both arsenic and uranium can cause cancer, problems with the kidneys, liver and heart. Uranium can cause brain health issues, and arsenic impairs normal functioning of the lungs and skin.

Mining processes typically create elevated levels of arsenic and lead, among other contaminants, that can threaten local water sources. Because reservations are considered “federal land,” mining companies historically set up with little or no input from the Indigenous peoples with rights to the land.

Arsenic also can occur naturally in soils, and it does on parts of the Navajo Nation, which stretches across the Four Corner states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, and also on the Tohono O’odham Nation, located further south in Arizona along its border with Mexico. Chief’s group is working on these issues with both tribal nations. The university has also worked with local tribal colleges to develop learning modules on arsenic and mining-related topics.                        

Water sitting in storage or livestock tanks, as is often the case for the unregulated wells, has additional issues. Contaminants can concentrate into unhealthy levels because water evaporates, especially in summer, while heavy metals and metalloids like arsenic remain behind.

Partnership inspiring students

As part of the collaboration, Diné College undergraduates and community members work alongside University of Arizona graduate students on food sovereignty projects and water testing and purification projects.                            

Singer said mingling his undergraduate students with the grad students from the university seems to be encouraging them to continue their education beyond a bachelor’s degree, as he’s written about half a dozen master’s program recommendation letters for “my kids,” students he’s taught in the summer courses.

The work inspired him as well, it seems, as he’s planning to start an online master’s degree program in public health at Andrews University this fall. Singer said he considers the interactions with the University of Arizona a true partnership.

“We really help each other,” Singer said. “It’s all about rebalancing our water, the life into our water. We want to make our rivers, and ponds and wells, everything, bring it back to harmony and balance for our people and our animals, livestock, and plants.”

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Melanie Lenart is a regular contributor to Native Science Report. She worked as an adjunct professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Environmental Science from 2009-2015.

Story published March 29, 2022.

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