By Colleen Keane

SPECIAL TO THE NAVAJO TIMES

ROCK SPRINGS, NM – Mindy Grace Bahe is only two months old, but she’s already giving back to her community.

She is one of about 500 Dine babies who are part of the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, a research that aims to identify the long-term impact of uranium mining, while giving parents some practical interventions that can help make her homes safer today.

Wrapped in a warm blanket, Mindy Grace rocks happily back and forth in a colorful seeing, as her bright eyes follow her mom’s voice.

Sitting on a sofa next to Mindy, her mom Monique Tulley-Bahe, 25, is engaged in a relaxed conversation with Roxanne Thompson, an environmental research specialist with the Navajo Division of Health.

The study is a joint effort between division of health, the University of New Mexico’s DiNEH Project, the Centers for Disease Control, Navajo Area Indian Health Service, and the Southwest Research and Information Center.

Thompson who has been working on the Navajo Birth Cohort Study for the past three years, says that the study team aims to engage another 1,000 Dine babies and their parents living in areas impacted by uranium mining on tribal lands.

Tulley-Bahe said that she and her husband signed up for the study when she was pregnant with Mindy Grace.

“I signed up as soon as I heard about it, because I wanted to do something to make sure Dine children will have a healthy future,” she said. “We want to do all we can to raise a healthy baby.”

“When they first engaged in the study, the Bahe’s were living in Springstead, N.M. near the site of the 1979 United Nuclear Corporation uranium tailings pile spill, the largest release ever of radioactive waste in the country.

The spill was just one of many ways Navajo Nation land has been contaminated during and after uranium mining began in the mid 1940s.

“We still have hundreds of open pit mines, waste not being properly buried and water that’s not safe to drink,” said Bahe.

The toxic materials left behind from the uranium industry that pulled out in the 1980s have created concerns about long-term health effects. ¬†One of the concerns the Birth Cohort Study is looking at is the impact contaminants may have on the immune system, making it harder to fight off diseases,” explains Dr. Johnnye Lewis, the lead researcher at UNM during an interview with the Times in her office on campus.

When the Bahe’s received their initial readings back from blood and urine samples, uranium was detected. Concerned, they decided to relocate to Rock Springs, north of Gallup where they would continue with the study.

Thompson asks Tulley-Bahe several questions about Mindy Grace’s development and growth. She then puts answer into a data form that will be sent to UNM researchers to compile and analyze.

Bahe said the interview process is easy because health specialists like Thompson are bilingual in English and Navajo and “they talk and joke with you.”

During the year-long study, Thompson and another community health representative will visit the Bahe family on a regular basis, collect data, update development information and check environmental radon levels in and around the house.

“They put (radon detector) canisters around the house to search for evidence of contamination,” says Bahe who adds that the best part of the study is that parents get test results back right away.

If radon, a by-product of uranium, is detected, Thompson explains that the family is advised of ways they can reduce those levels like opening the doors in the summer, boiling water on the stove to increase humidity and putting fans in the house to increase air circulation.

“The family doesn’t have to move,’ Thompson points out.

“You feel better knowing what’s going on,” adds Tulley-Bahe.

Bahe said that she understands that some families maybe skeptical of research studies because of past experiences with non-native researchers who collected data and never were seen or heard from again. But, she adds that this one is different because the Navajo Nation has a pivotal role in the implementation of the study.

Lewis said that the initial study results are showing that uranium is present in some of the babies in the study.

“It’s a small percentage at birth,” she emphasized.

But, she said. “Even one child at risk is of concern to us and makes it important to know where exposures are coming from so that (the exposures) can be reduced.”

Lewis reports that the study results are also showing something that hasn’t been fully documented before.

“It’s not only that some babies are exposed prior to birth, but the exposure seems to continue after birth. It’s possibly from diet, breast milk, water, or air. This is one of the most important questions were are trying to answer, but so far can’t determine,” notes Lewis.

Lewis adds that the study team is working hard to secure ongoing funding to follow the babies in the cohort as they grow older so these questions can be answered and targeted interventions to reduce exposure can be put into place.

Currently, the study is funded until August of 2018.

Thompson says that the Birth Cohort Study is reaching out to expecting parents to join the study at medical facilities in Chinle and Tuba City, AZ; Gallup, Shiprock, and Fort Defiance.

“I can’t stress the importance of being a part of the study enough, because it is the next generation we need to be worried about to make sure they are living in a healthy and safe environment,” said Tulley-Bahe.

Information: Call 877-545-6775.

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