FARMINGTON — A planned study of Navajo Nation mothers and children affected by uranium is ready to begin, but has been stalled by red tape, Nation officials say.
The U.S. and Navajo Nation Environmental Protection agencies are waiting for the go-ahead on a project that was slated to begin last year. The problem is federal funding.
"Every now and then, there's a birth recorded with all kinds of problems," said Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation agency. "But it's really difficult to directly attribute any one thing without research."
Both agencies have long wondered if there is any connection between the high number of deformities and elevated levels of uranium in certain communities.
"People attribute them (deformities) to uranium exposure, but none of it's been formally documented. They've never been addressed," said Etsitty.
Exposure to uranium has been a concern on the Navajo Nation since the 1980s, when people realized uranium mining was contaminating the surrounding land and water sources.
Radioactive ore occurs naturally in the area. However, mining started in the 1940s has tainted the area endangering people working with it and living near it.
The agencies still are working to clean up the mess with a handful of other agencies.
The U.S. EPA just last week released a report on its five-year, $100 million cleanup project, concluding that progress was better than expected, though there still is much to do.
That includes the study on women and children, specifically pregnant women with unborn children.
The agencies already have enlisted the commitment of the Indian Health Services, Center for Disease and Control, and other partners, according to the U.S. EPA's report, which was issued last week.
The study would enlist about 1,500 pregnant mothers living on the Navajo reservation, assess their exposure to uranium, and the follow their pregnancy, Etsitty said.
"It's what people have been asking for," he said. "They want to know what's happening to their future ... but it's also very sensitive."
The study would follow the children for about one year after their birth, and record any data about their uranium exposure and its effects on their health and behavior, the report said.
It would be the first study of its kind, though the Center for Disease and Control has some information on the effects of uranium on children.
The effects seen in children are expected to be similar to those seen in adults, which usually damages the kidneys, according to the center's Web site.
Uranium exposure appeared to induce early deaths and birth defects in pregnant animal subjects. It was not clear if this would have happened without the uranium exposure, the Web site said.
It also is not clear whether uranium can cause birth defects in people. Some studies have suggested that exposure to uranium increased the frequency of birth defects, but the studies are not sufficient to allow valid conclusions, the Web site said.