Uranium Awareness Training Course Empowers over 90 Navajo Community Health Representatives

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Uranium awareness poster for the Shiprock Area; one of 9 versions of the poster.
Uranium awareness poster for the Shiprock Area; one of 9 versions of the poster.

How much do you know about uranium? Do you know that it is naturally present in nearly all rocks, soils, and air? Or that nearly everyone is exposed to low amounts of uranium in food and water?

For much of the U.S. population, uranium exposure stays at these low levels. But in the 1940s, federal surveyors found large deposits of uranium on the lands of the Navajo Nation, which covers 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. In fact, from 1944 to 1986, uranium mines on Navajo lands yielded almost four million tons of uranium ore.

The mines have been closed for close to 30 years. But with over 500 abandoned uranium mine areas on their lands, Navajo Nation community members are concerned about possible exposure to uranium by direct contact with soil and rock or by using water sources containing uranium. They want to know the location of those mines and water sources, many of which have not yet been marked. And they need to know how to protect themselves and their families from possible uranium exposure.

To meet these needs, a team of representatives from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Navajo Area Indian Health Service (IHS) developed posters to display across the Navajo Nation. These posters feature nine different maps showing the locations of mines and contaminated water sources and provide information about how to avoid exposure and maintain good health. Team members Jamie Rayman, MPH (ATSDR Region 9), Secody Hubbard, PhD (EPA Region 9), and Dorena Benally, MSN, RN (Navajo Area IHS) also put together 4 fact sheets for community members to keep for future reference.

“Normally an educational poster gets posted without any public education,” said Mae-Gilene Begay, MSW, Program Director of the Navajo Nation CHR/Outreach Program at the Navajo Nation Department of Health (NDOH). So she asked ATSDR to develop a training course on uranium awareness for the more than 90 Navajo Community Health Representatives (CHRs) in her program. The CHRs could then distribute the posters to Chapter Houses across the Nation and take health and exposure prevention messages to the community members they work with every day.

The team delivered the one-day training course in Window Rock, capital of the Navajo Nation, in December 2014. The overall goal was to help CHRs understand the new uranium awareness posters and fact sheets and learn how to use them to communicate with community residents. The course provided training in the following areas:

  • Sharing health and safety messages about uranium
  • Identifying warning signs of uranium exposure
  • Improving map-reading skills
  • Describing the locations of abandoned mines, contaminated water sources, or regulated water sources near a resident’s home
  • Providing other resources as needed.

In addition, the CHRs worked together to identify key Navajo words to describe uranium and mines, as well as other features. This practice helped them prepare for conversations with Navajo-speakers on these topics.

Following the training course, CHRs took the posters into the community and presented them to 110 Navajo Chapter Houses. The Navajo Area Indian Health Service also displayed posters in 30 health care facilities and clinics across the Navajo Nation and in their Area Offices.

Ms. Begay said, “The Navajo people will now be able to understand the uranium poster hanging in a Chapter House and will no longer need to guess about its purpose.”

Public education won’t solve the problem of abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, but it does help make community members aware of uranium exposure near them and help them know what to do to protect their families and themselves.

The training team included Candis Hunter (ATSDR), Robert Knowles (ATSDR), Jennifer Lyke (ATSDR), Sona Chilingaryan (EPA), Linda Reeves (EPA), Dolores Gruber (IHS), and Anna Rondon (NDOH). Janelia Smiley (IHS) assisted with Navajo language interpretation. Amanda Pease (EPA) contributed to development of training materials.


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Page last reviewed: October 19, 2015
Page last updated: October 19, 2015