For Some Native Americans, Uranium Contamination Feels Like Discrimination via Nevada Public Radio

Helen Nez had 10 children. Now she only has three.

Seven of her children died of a disorder called Navajo neuropathy, which is linked to uranium contamination.

“Many people died and some have liver disease, kidney disease and some suffer from cancer as a result,” Nez said through a translator.

When she was pregnant, Nez and her children drank from a spring, located on Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, with uranium levels at least five times greater than safe drinking water standards, according to a studypublished in the journal Environmental Science & Technology in 2015.

Four of her children died as toddlers. Three died in early adulthood. Their stomachs became bloated, and their eyes turned a cloudy gray. The three remaining children, now adults, have health problems.


“People on the outside world say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Get out of there. Move!’ ” said Chris Shuey, the director of uranium impact assessment at Southwest Research and Information Center. “That’s not economically or culturally feasible. People have been captive to these exposures now for three generations.”

Shuey, an environmental health scientist, has been studying the impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo people for almost four decades. He points out that Navajos are connected by tradition to the land. When a Navajo baby is born, the umbilical cord is buried in the ground, tying them to that place forever.

The community and many others like it want to know why it’s taking the federal government so long to clean up the abandoned mines.

In the NPR poll, 39 percent of Native Americans say discrimination based in laws and government policies is a bigger problem than discrimination based on individuals’ prejudice.

“The slow pace of cleanup is directly related to the law, itself,” Shuey said. “The law places more importance on the relationship between EPA and the companies that caused the problem than it creates a right of sitting at the table of the local affected community. And so on Navajo, that is institutional racism.”

In this case, Shuey said the policies of the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the tribe have hurt the Navajo people.

Of the 521 abandoned mines, the EPA has only cleaned up nine so far. And Shuey says cleanup presents a lot of challenges.


At the current rate, it would take multiple generations for the Navajo to be free of uranium contamination. For this family and for many others though, it’s already too late.

Read more at For Some Native Americans, Uranium Contamination Feels Like Discrimination 

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