by Terri C. Hansen, Bureau Chief
News From Indian Country
Pacific Northwest Bureau
August 15, 1995
Ecocide. It's a chilling word that is used more and more to describe the rising damage caused by America's toxic environment. There is suspicion that American Indians may be at higher risk of injury from toxic exposures than the general population. What follows is the first a two-part series in which News from Indian Country examines the adverse health effects of commonly used chemicals on Native people.
Dioxin with your salmon?
The young Yakama fisherman holds out his hands. "They've never touched a hook," he says proudly. He fishes the Columbia River using ways handed down by his grandfathers, with spear and net.
Leonard comes from a traditional family. True, he has to keep a day job in the city, but when the five o'clock whistle blows he drives two hours east to his people's centuries-old fishing grounds on the north side of what is today called the Columbia River Gorge.
Intertwined with this once-wild river's journey to the Pacific is the journey of the salmon, and those who call the salmon sacred. For Leonard and many others this river is their true home, their spiritual home.
But a serious new worry troubles Leonard and the treaty fishers. Are they getting a hefty dose of dioxin with their salmon?
Last September the EPA released a draft report on dioxin that was the first to publicly suggest exposure could result in human health conditions more hazardous than cancer. The agency concluded that even trace amounts of the organochlorine chemical – present in many pesticides and dry-cleaning compounds – can cause injury to the immune, reproductive and developmental systems, and birth defects.
Last October the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, who represent the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama nations, released a fish consumption survey revealing that Columbia River Indians eat a great deal more fish than most Americans.
The EPA's daily recommended fish consumption rate is 6.5 grams, while the average Columbia River tribal member consumes 58.7 grams of fish per day.
Because tribal members typically consume not only the meat but the whole fish, they are exposing themselves to dangerously high toxicity levels in their diets.
"In light of the survey and EPA's recent conclusions on the toxicity of dioxin and related compounds, we believe that the health of tribal members is not adequately protected by existing federal and state policies," says Ted Strong, CRITFC's executive director.
"We urge an investigation of the industrial permits issued ... for possible violation of President Clinton's Executive Order on Environmental Justice and the Civil rights Act."
Upstream from the Yakama's traditional fishing grounds eight paper mills release dioxin into the river. Two mills discharge almost directly into tribal fishing areas. Pesticides, furans, PCBs, heavy metals, and radionuclides also choke the waters of the deep river. In 1992 the American Rivers Council declared it America's most endangered river, seriously bringing the future of the centuries-old lifestyle of the peoples of the Columbia River into question.
Shoalwater Bay Tribe
Willipa Bay is recognized as the cleanest tidewater on the West Coast. Inland streams flow into this 88,000 acre bay to mingle with Pacific Ocean waters in a kind of cleansing ritual. But in recent years the Willipa environment has been severely compromised.
On the north side of the bay is the Shoalwater Bay Reservation. The tribe here has gained attention over the past five years for its increasing health problems and astronomical infant mortality rate. It's the kind of attention the tribe doesn't want.
Their pain and their questions began in the mid-80s, when their babies began to die. By 1992, this tiny coastal village had lost 16 infants.
Between the years 1987 and 1992, the Shoalwaters had 24 confirmed pregnancies. Of those, two infants died during their first year, two babies were stillborn, and twelve were lost to miscarriage.
In 1993, state and tribal health officials considered their lack of basic health care, and use of cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol as possible causes for the infant deaths. Another culprit briefly considered by officials was chemical exposure from spraying on surrounding lands and waters.
Commercial forests cover two-thirds of the bay's watershed and are sprayed with herbicides by helicopter to kill unwanted vegetation.
Cranberry bogs - 1400 acres of the bay's watershed - are sprayed from February through August with fungicides and insecticides.
Commercial oyster farming is widespread in the bay's shallow waters, and so is the use of insecticides to kill the ghost shrimp that soften the mud beneath the oyster beds.
The Shoalwaters and local citizens tried to prevent the oyster farmers from spraying new herbicides onto the bay to kill spartina grass, which softens the mud too. After a 24-month struggle, the pro-spraying forces prevailed, pushing the growth of pesticide use the bay's watershed.
"The acreage they're covering is getting larger and larger every year," says a frustrated Herbert Whitish, the Shoalwaters' tribal chairman.
As to the cause of infant deaths, no funding was provided for research because of the tribe's small population.
The infant mortality rate for Native Americans in Washington State is 12.6 deaths per 1,000 births, as compared to 7.5 deaths for whites, according to Indian Health Service. Nationally, the rate in Indian Country is 11.0 as opposed to 8.5 for whites.
Children most at risk
Because toxins accumulate in fatty tissues, women are two to three times more likely than men to be adversely affected by chemical spraying and other chemical exposures. But most at risk could be the children, who are small and have immature detoxifications systems. Kids inhabit spaces that adults generally do not - on floors, in the dirt, under things.
Children and adults who become ill report fatigue, headaches, sleep problems, joint and muscle pain, neurological problems, depression, confusion, memory-loss, learning and attention disorders, seizures, and blackouts, among other symptoms. Earlier this year, a study found that children who are regularly exposed to pesticides suffer elevated rates of childhood leukemia and soft tissue sarcomas.
Meanwhile, cautious hope has returned to Shoalwater Bay. There was a baby born last year, and another this year. Again there will be moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, and grandfathers. But any happiness has to be tempered with an overriding worry. Many, if not most, of the Shoalwater tribal members are chronically ill.
"We've seen a lot of need (for medical services)," says Whitish, who also serves an interim director of the tribe's newly opened health clinic. "Everybody on the reservation has one sort of ailment or another. Everyone has chronic health problems."
Whitish, who himself suffers from the vague diagnosis chronic fatigue syndrome, says there are five tribal members diagnosed with the illness. But, he adds, there are many more than that who are suffering from it.
A multiplicity of terms have sprung up to identify syndromes related to toxic exposure.
Commonly used are chemical injuries, multiple chemical sensitivity, environmental illness, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, sick building syndrome, Gulf War syndrome and a host of autoimmune disorders.
Routine medical tests often do not reveal abnormalities, leading uninformed physicians to misdiagnose chemical injuries as depression - or some other psychiatric condition.
More specific tests are required to accurately diagnose a chemical injury, or related autoimmune and neurological disorders.
Some patients, aware that CFS and MCS are not well known to most physicians and are thus rarely diagnosed, will seek out a diagnosis by finding a knowledgeable doctor. CFS and MCS are most routinely diagnosed by specialists who call themselves Clinical Ecologists, while rheumatologists diagnose CFS, and autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus and multiple sclerosis.
Symptoms of toxicity include, but are not limited to flu-like illness, headaches, frequent urination, sudden fatigue or drowsiness, dry mouth and/or eyes, unexplained rashes, hives, chest pains, sore or twitching muscles, rapid heartbeat, hair loss, numbness, tingling or burning in the face or extremities, yeast infections, pre-menstrual problems, low birth weight babies, food intolerances, food cravings, gassiness or cramps.
Central nervous system impairments include emotional instability, forgetfulness, sudden or unexplained irritability or rage, depression, hyperactivity, confusion, forgetfulness, difficulty in thinking, anxiety, panic attacks, black outs and seizures.
It is important to note that this is not a complete list of symptoms. Some individuals may experience only one symptom, but most will have multiple symptoms, which may appear gradually or suddenly.
Neurotoxic illness greater public health threat than cancer
Suspicions about chemical and pesticide safety have existed since they were first concocted by chemists a century ago. But the numbers of reported chemical injuries are now sharply increasing as people in all segments of society become aware of environmental dangers.
In the last 50 years, industry has introduced well over 65,000 new chemicals into our environment. The EPA each year receives around 1,500 notices of intent to manufacture new chemical substances. No accurate figures are kept to caution the public how many chemicals are in existence that produce neurotoxic effects.
Perhaps the most sobering news of the neurotoxic effects of chemicals comes from a recent federal government report that says the illnesses associated with neurotoxicity are likely to pose a greater threat to public health in the coming years than cancer.
The report, released by the Congressional office of Technology Assessment, says the adverse neurotoxic effects of chemicals "range from impaired movement, anxiety, and confusion to memory loss, convulsions, and death."
Recognizing the growing numbers of chemically affected people living in public housing, the federal office of Housing and Urban Development issued a ruling that recognizes Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Disorders.
Any tenant of a HUD housing complex who has been diagnosed with MCS is now entitled to force building owners to cease any application of chemicals that might harm them. These include paints, fertilizers, pesticides, and other substances commonly used by landlords. HUD recognizes MCS as a handicap and has sued landlords for economic loss, emotional distress, and other injuries caused to chemically sensitive tenants.
Victims mistaken say big business, chemical industry
Still, there is total resistance among the chemical industry and other branches of big business to admit their products are harmful to humans, let alone the environment at large.
The Chemical Manufactures Association has gone so far as to accuse those who believe they are environmentally ill and their physicians of being completely mistaken.
The CMA admits that these patients are ill and "deserving of compassion, understanding and expert medical care," but adds that these patients "... generally lead troubled lives and have genuine problems coping with family, work, and lifestyle pressures."
Sufferers say CMA depicts patients as maladjusted malcontents so their clients, the chemical industry, can continue to churn out toxic products. With the recent emergence of so many toxic-related syndromes, it's become clear to sufferers and their physicians that CMA - much like the tobacco industry - is backpedaling furiously to head off any financial threat, regardless of the impact on human health.
"The label of 'environmental illness' is a misdiagnosis and condemns these patients to the life of an outcast with little hope of a cure," says the CMA. "It is not the legitimacy of the patients that is in question, but the alleged environmental cause. Failure to recognize this critical difference can result in enormous costs to the patient, the industry, and to society."
The tip of the iceberg
The cases of environmental poisoning described in this article appear to be the tiny tip of a massive iceberg. A dizzying line-up of toxic pollution is scattered throughout Indian Country.
On Navajo lands, an estimated 600 dwellings are considered radioactive. Uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation is thought to be responsible for the epidemic of birth defects, miscarriages, cancer, and other diseases.
The Traditional Seminole Nation, a non-recognized subsistence band of 200 in Florida, wants to relocate because toxic discharges from nearby incinerators are making subsistence living too dangerous.
Native American basket weavers in California are exposed to high levels of pesticides and herbicides as they pick and process grasses and other natural materials with their hands and mouths. Some complain of numbness and other ill-effects after processing materials that may have been sprayed. The "California Indian Basketweavers Association" was formed in 1991 to address issues that impact traditional basket weavers, including the use of pesticides.
Michael Hamilton, a 14-year-old boy, was shot and killed as tribal members on California's Torres-Martinez Reservation battled industry to stop dumping toxic sludge on their land. The illegal dump, which tribal members say causes breathing difficulties, nausea, diarrhea, and headaches, has grown so large it has been dubbed "sludge mountain."
Fish from Minnesota's St. Louis River, used for subsistence fishing by the Fond du Lac Band of Chippewa, have been found to be contaminated with methylmercury, believed to be associated with area paper, steel and iron industries, and with the use of municipal garbage as fuel for incinerating sewage waste and sludge.
The St. Lawrence River in New York State has been the major source of subsistence foods for the Mohawk, but waste from a General Motors foundry turned the Twentieth century River into an exposure pathway of PCBs and waste. Fish and wildlife on the Akwesasne reservation were unfit to be eaten. In 1990 the Mohawks passed a tribal resolution adopting standards for PCBs in Akwesasne that have been used by EPA in determining emission standards.
Their battle is far from won
While recognition of the hazards of pesticides earlier in the Clinton administration gave many cause for hope, the battle for health is by no means won.
On May 16, 1995 a House Agricultural Subcommittee held hearings that environmentalists say will ease restrictions on cancer causing pesticides and strip states of their authority to adopt standards more restrictive than the federal government.
The legislation seeks to repeal the Delaney Clause, a provision of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act which prohibits cancer causing pesticide residues in processed food. The Clause has been under attack by a coalition of food and chemical companies. This is all in the context of a national cancer epidemic, striking one in three in the US, and a dramatic worldwide decline in the male sperm count over the past fifty years.
The most important step you can take to protect yourself and your family is avoidance and prevention.
It is critical, especially with infants and children who are less capable of detoxifying than adults, to avoid toxic substances. This means using non-toxic products whenever possible.
There are numerous books published that describe how to clean the good old-fashioned way using vinegar, lemon juice, borax, baking soda, and real soap flakes.
Always be particularly careful what you put in and on your children. Pesticide residue has been found on some three percent of produce sold in this country.
Water is another source of toxic exposure. Treated water is chlorinated and ground water is all too often contaminated with pesticide residues and solvents, especially in poorer neighborhoods.
Even baby clothing and mattresses are treated with questionable flame retardants. Disposable diapers are a source of dioxin, one of the most toxic substances known.
Read the labels of everything you buy. Ask questions. Protect your children, your community, and your People. Never trust that what someone else is doing to the air or water in the name of health is safe practice.
Be prepared to fight. The chemical industry is very powerful and does not give up. Neither should you. Stay healthy. It is harder to fight if you are ill.
The best rule of thumb is to use natural materials whenever you can. As much as possible live in the manner of our ancestors. They lived in natural homes, they slept on natural bedding.
They sat down upon our Mother Earth, not on seats constructed of synthetic materials. They walked barefoot and wore soft leather, letting the Earth's contours stimulate the soles of their feet, which helped to keep their bodies and health in balance.
Their diets and daily living patterns were in accordance to the seasons. If they were injured they laid upon the ground, pulling the Earth's natural healing powers into their bodies.
Our heritage is our spirituality, our harmony and balance with the Earth, and our connection to all living creatures, to our community and to our people. Our legacy can guide us to survival.