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Béésh dootł’izh baa ntsáhákees: Zinc: a potential shield against mining’s legacy on Navajo Nation

GALLUP – The Navajo Nation, deeply scarred by decades of mining activity, carries the burden of environmental contamination from heavy metals and toxic minerals. But a flicker of hope shines through a University of New Mexico study that explores the potential of zinc to mitigate these harmful effects on residents.

The study, the “Thinking Zinc” project, underway in the Manuelito Chapter, delves into the power of zinc, an essential nutrient, to potentially counteract the disruptive impact of metals such as uranium and arsenic on the body’s metabolism. Laurie Hudson and Debra MacKenzie’s research builds on the growing understanding of zinc’s role in the body’s defense against metal toxicity.

“Certain metals associated with mining disrupt zinc’s role in the body,” Hudson explained. “But evidence suggests that added zinc can restore that balance.” This concept, supported by research with animals, holds promise for the Navajo Nation, where low zinc levels are prevalent and exposure to environmental metals is widespread.

In the fight against environmental contamination, zinc emerges as a potential champion against the long-term health threats of uranium and arsenic. While not a magic bullet, this essential mineral offers a promising counterpoint. Uranium deposits readily bind to proteins, disrupting crucial functions. Enter zinc, with its superior binding affinity for these same proteins. Zinc can displace uranium, mitigating its harmful effects. Similarly, arsenic’s toxic dance with cellular processes can be disrupted by zinc, potentially reducing its damaging impact.

While research is still underway, studies like the Thinking Zinc project show promising results. By taking the recommended daily dietary dose of 10 milligrams of zinc supplements alongside a healthy diet, people living with uranium and arsenic exposure could potentially mitigate the long-term damage these metals cause.

“We don’t know if it will reduce other metals in the body,” Hudson clarifies, “but we (she and MacKenzie) do think it will limit further damage. The data is very strong in animals, and this study is based on sound science using safe zinc levels.”

Community engagement

Beyond being based on sound science, the project prioritizes community engagement. Sara Adeky, a retired teacher and crucial outreach liaison, painstakingly translated materials into Navajo, ensuring clear communication and cultural sensitivity. The study design reflects collaboration with the community, adapting to Navajo values and concerns.

Adeky lives in Pinehill. She is Chíshí and born for Tó Baazhní’ázhí. She’s from the Navajo-Ramah community.

To ensure clear communication and consistent understanding, Adeky collaborates with David Begay on translating scientific concepts into precise Navajo terminology for the Thinking Zinc project. Adeky, who serves as a liaison to New Mexico chapters, emphasizes the importance of collective learning.

“We educate each other about terminology,” she explains, ensuring accuracy and accessibility for all communities.

Begay, an expert in environmental health, contributes further by translating complex scientific pathways into relatable Navajo language, empowering communities to comprehend the research and any activities linked to abandoned mines. This meticulous attention to detail lays a crucial foundation for trust and participation in the study.

Zinc supplements

“Everyone needs to know,” Adeky emphasizes. “We are at a point where we can see if zinc supplements can repair damaged cells for those living near abandoned mines and spills.”

The potential implications extend beyond Manuelito, as the project welcomes other affected communities, including Tséyaatoh and Lupton, situated on the Rio Puerco.

Participation in the study is voluntary and strictly confidential, using initials and pin numbers to protect identities. So far, 60 individuals are enrolled in the study, with a target of 200 individuals. Adeky highlights the positive response from individuals who find the project beneficial and appreciate the emphasis on their language.

“As we share information in our language, a language of soothing and healing takes place,” Adeky says. “It connects the project to Mother Earth. We will measure heavy metals that came from Mother Earth. They belong to her. They are her property.

“Non-Native people disturbed it and took it out of the ground,” she said. “Now we can go to another metal, zinc, and if we respect it, it will keep us in balance.”

Chris Shuey, another key figure in the project, underscores the impact of mining on the Navajo Nation, with an estimated 57% affected by mining in areas like the Grants Mineral Belt, Baca/Prewitt, and Church Rock, New Mexico, and Cameron, Arizona.

“This is a registered clinical trial,” he clarifies. “No one is compelled to take part. We are offering research that you can participate in.”

The project’s informational poster featuring Adeky’s blue corn mush, naadą́ą́’ dootł’izh tóshchíín, rich in zinc thanks to juniper ash, which symbolizes the bridge between Navajo wisdom and science. As Shuey puts it, “We are finding commonalities in Navajo tradition and Western science.”

The Thinking Zinc project, rooted in collaboration and grounded in sound science, offers a glimmer of hope in the face of environmental burdens endured by the Navajo people. It seeks not only to understand the potential of zinc against metal toxicity but also to empower communities in navigating the long-term legacy of mining and reclaiming their health and well-being.

Information: 877-545-6775, www.sric.org/zinc or email zinc@sric.org.


About The Author

Donna Wickerd

Donna Wickerd holds a B.S.B from the University of PHoenix and an M.Ed. from Northern Arizona University. Before joining the Navajo Times, she served as city editor for the Gallup Independent. Previously, she was an educator, education advocate and community activist.

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