Event Kicks-Off Partnership for Clean Drinking Water in the Northern Plains

December 15, 2022

Hazardous metals in drinking water, which are common contaminants near Superfund sites and abandoned uranium mines, play a role in the high burden of heart disease and diabetes affecting rural communities in the U.S. Northern Plains, including tribal communities.

A new interdisciplinary scientific and community partnership launched this week to generate knowledge, advance technologies, and develop solutions to reduce these exposures. A kick-off event took place on December 13.

Based at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, the Columbia University Northern Plains Superfund Research Program (CUNP-SRP) brings together researchers from Columbia Mailman, the Columbia Climate School, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with community partners at Missouri Breaks based in North Dakota and South Dakota. The program is funded through a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

“Our mission is to protect water resources in tribal communities from these hazardous metal exposures through the integration of system science, innovative technology, and traditional Indigenous knowledge,” said Ana Navas-Acien, professor of environmental health sciences and CUNP-SRP principal investigator, in introductory remarks.

Going forward, CUNP-SRP researchers will pursue several aims, working to differentiate between areas with safe water and those needing remediation; trace sources of contamination in water and the biological pathways of exposures, with particular attention to cardiovascular health; and to develop sustainable technologies to treat contaminated water. Eventually, the resulting technologies could be manufactured and sold by tribal members.

Community partners will work with researchers on data collection, analysis, and interpretation and lead research translation and dissemination of findings to residents of three communities in North Dakota and South Dakota. 

The program builds on the Strong Heart Study, a longitudinal epidemiological study linking arsenic and uranium exposures to elevated levels of cardiovascular disease in American Indian communities in the Northern Plains. The study, the only one of its kind focused on American Indian populations, dates to the 1980s and since 2008, environmental work has been led by Navas-Acien.

Along with Navas-Acien, other speakers at the launch event included Columbia Mailman Dean Linda P. Fried; Columbia Climate School Dean Alex N. Halliday; Environmental Health Sciences Chair Andrea Baccarelli; as well as several community partners from Missouri Breaks and researchers across Columbia University. Current and former students trained through the Columbia Mailman Superfund program were acknowledged.

Rae O’Leary, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and a public health scientist for Missouri Breaks in South Dakota, introduced the work she and her colleagues do to promote the health of tribal community members. She said: “We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with all of you and further the science to understand more about [metal exposures] and what that means for our people and what we can do to treat, educate and empower people to do something for their health and their children’s health.”