Toxic trailers?

Klagetoh moms suspect their homes may be making children ill

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

KLAGETOH, Ariz., March 15, 2012

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(Times photo - Cindy Yurth)

TOP: Sophie Curley demonstrates the apparatus her younger children sometimes need to help them breathe. Curley believes her older mobile home is infected with mold, which has led to chronic respiratory problems among her children.

BOTTOM: Sophie Curley, left, dabs at a tear as she describes the health problems her children have faced since they moved into an older mobile home on the family's home-site lease in Klagetoh two years ago. On this visit, Junior, 13 (standing) and Tyioun, 4, were home sick.

D uring his 19 years serving at St. Anne's Mission, Bro. John Hotstream has watched a lot of his parishioners grow up and have children of their own.

And of this new generation, many seem to be chronically ill.

Not only that, but the coughing, headaches, watery eyes, and chronic respiratory infections seem to run in families. One might suspect heredity, but Hotstream knew the parents, and although some now have health problems, they grew up as healthy kids.

Hotstream is getting up in years, and recently accepted an assignment close to his hometown of New Orleans. But before he leaves Klagetoh this June, he'd like to get to the bottom of what is happening to its children.

Among the families he's been following, there is one common denominator: They live in old, rundown trailers dating to the 1980s or earlier. He's starting to wonder, could their homes be making them sick?

Valerie Franklin thinks it's plausible. She and her husband moved into their 1989 trailer, given to them by her husband's boss, in 2000.

"Then," she said, "I started having kids."

Actually they already had one, now 14. The other four, ages 8, 7, 5 and 2, were all born while the family was living in the trailer. Every one of them has the same symptoms: red, watery eyes; coughing; lung and throat irritation.

Franklin says they catch every bug that comes along.

"It seems like I'm always taking someone to the IHS," she said.

A few miles west on a dirt road, Sophie Curley's family is in the same boat. Her eight kids, especially the youngest five ages 6, 5, 3, 2 and 1, are constantly ill.

Several of them have asthma and are supposed to use an electronic respirator when at home. But Curley relies on a gasoline-powered generator for electricity, and to run it costs money she doesn't have.

"I try to run the machines about an hour a day," she said.

She opened a cupboard to reveal the tangled tubing of three respirators and a shocking array of medicines her children take daily.

Today, Junior, 13 and Tyioun, 4, are home sick. Junior, who is standing by the woodstove, punctuates his sentences with a dry cough. Tyioun is asleep on the couch. He looks pale.

An older son is watching the baby, whom Curley said is also constantly sick. The IHS gave Curley some plastic sheeting and instructions on how to construct a germ-free enclosure for the infant, but "Where am I supposed to put it?" asked Curley, looking around the cramped space. "We have 10 people in three bedrooms."

That puts a lot of stress on the plumbing, which Curley suspects is leaking into the substructure and causing mold.

"You can smell it," she said, leading the reporter into the bathroom. Indeed, there is a musty odor.

Curley confessed she sometimes sends her kids to school sick because "I think it's better for them to be there than here."

Curley said she's been told her family would qualify for NHA housing, but she's reluctant to abandon her home-site lease.

"I feel like this land is the only thing I have," she said.

Hard to prove

Barbara Begay, Klagetoh's Community Health Representative, says no one has ever complained to her of an environmental illness, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen.

"The way people are living out here," she said, "It's not surprising."

If there is something toxic in the trailers, said Eugenia Quintana, head of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency's Air and Toxics Department, the families don't have much recourse.

"If it's a home they're renting from the NHA, we might be able to help them," she said. "If it's individually owned, they're responsible for fixing it themselves."

Even under federal air quality standards, mold is not a regulated toxin.

"Mold is ubiquitous," Quintana explained. "There's even some kinds of mold we eat, like mushrooms."

And it's only toxic to certain people, those with allergies to the specific type of mold that's present.

"Some people get headaches, some people get nauseous, some get respiratory problems, and some people aren't affected at all," Quintana said.

As a population, Navajos have a higher-than-average proclivity toward allergies, said Don Cooke, a Durango, Colo., allergist who some years ago did a study of allergies among the Navajo population between Crownpoint and Nageezi, N.M.

And Hotstream's observation that healthy parents are producing a generation of allergic children may have some grounding in science. A recent study at Washington State University found that when pregnant rats were exposed to toxins, their offspring were more sensitive to the substance than their parents were.

In spite of the fact that a Navajo Nation administration building was closed for weeks last fall after black mold was found in it, Quintana doesn't believe that mold is a "huge problem" on the Navajo Nation.

"We don't even get one call a week about it," she said. "Maybe one call every three months."

But that could be because people just don't know what they're dealing with.

"Even with my medical knowledge," said a local health professional, "it didn't occur to me I had an environmental illness until I was referred to an allergist and he suggested it."

"The problem with environmental illnesses," she said, "is that they're really, really hard to prove."

Investigation needed

The young woman, who asked to remain anonymous because health professionals are encouraged to keep their own medical histories confidential, ended up in Arizona because of mold - or so she suspects.

She recalls being thrilled when, in 2010, she found a house she could afford in her Midwestern hometown. But after a couple of months in it, she came down with such a bad sinus infection it eventually required surgery and still did not clear up.

"The worst part was, my co-workers started to judge me," she said. "Since no one could tell me what I had, they didn't believe I was sick. It was an awful, awful cycle."

After extensive treatment and no success, her doctors had thrown up their hands and referred her to the Mayo Clinic when she got a call offering her a job in Arizona. After some debate, she threw her things in her car and headed west, casting a sad glance in the rearview mirror at her dream house turned nightmare.

"About Nebraska, I started feeling better," she recalled.

After a few months in Arizona, the only residual symptom was an occasional headache.

"I was lucky," she said. "I had insurance. I had access to an allergist. I was able to get away from my house and go somewhere else. Even with all that, it was a horrible ordeal. I don't know what I would have done if I had been a Navajo living here."

Neither the IHS nor the NHA returned emails asking if they had any programs to educate people on environmental illness. Quintana said the EPA has a lot of literature people are welcome to pick up, and mold test kits are available at home improvement stores.

Meanwhile, the Klagetoh families make do with pills, respirators and doctor visits. And when one considers how many Navajos are probably living with allergies, they may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Cooke said the symptoms described by the families are very typical of allergies, but "they would need a complete work-up" to tell what, exactly, they're allergic to - something that's hard to access in the IHS system, which does not have a single allergist on the Navajo Nation.

"The problem rests squarely on the shoulders of the IHS," he said. "I've been telling them for years they need to address the under-diagnosed, undertreated allergy situation on the reservation, and it falls on deaf ears."

Hotstream would like to see a collaboration between the IHS, the NHA and the Navajo EPA to study and address the problem of environmental illness, but he's not hopeful he'll see any progress before he leaves Diné Bikéyah.

"It's a sad situation," he said. "With all the problems these folks have to deal with out here, they shouldn't have to worry that their homes are making their children sick."