Akwesasne Nation Peoples and Environmental Health and Justice

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

Numerous studies on environmental pollution and exposure among Native American peoples have been undertaken with the Akwesasne people. The Akwesasne Mohawks reside in upper eastern New York State and the southern parts of the Canadian Provinces of Quebec and Ontario along the St. Lawrence, St. Regis, and Raquette Rivers. Though divided by international borders, the Akwesasne consider themselves a single community of approximately 12,000 members. Many of these studies have been conducted with the cooperation of the Akwesasne people through the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment.

The Akwesasne are especially impacted by PCB pollution (for information on PCBs see and pesticide exposure. The concentration of industries that produced PCBs and PCB contaminated pollutants near the Akwesasne nation contributes to elevated PCB exposure among the Akwesasne ( Manning 2005). PCB exposure rates are higher among the Akwesasne than the general population (Haase et al. 2009), and especially among Akwesasne women and infants (Fitzgerald et al. 1998, 2004; Hwang, Fitzgerald, and Bush 1996). PCB exposure is commonly associated with the food chain and Native diets which depend on local wildlife (Ashpole, Bishop, and Brooks 1996; De de Solla et al. 2000; Bishop et al. 1996; Fitzgerald et al. 1996, 1999, 2005) and occupational exposure (Fitzgerald et al., 2007).

PCBs are classified as probable carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and as reasonably likely carcinogens by the National Toxicological Program. They have been linked to cancers of the liver, gall bladder, gastrointestinal tract, brain, and possibly breasts and melanomas (Johnson et al. 1999). Other effects include those for children of pregnant women. Effects include neurological and motor skill deficiencies, low IQ, poor short short-term memory, low birth weight, and reduced head size (Jacobson and Jacobson 1996). PCBs act as hormone mimics and disrupt the normal functioning of the hormonal system, including the thyroid, and impair immune system functions (Schell et al. 2003), and have been related to coronary heart disease (Sergeev and Carpenter 2005).

Organochlorine pesticide exposure is widespread among the Akwesasne. Exposure has been related to pancreatic cancer; non-Hodgkins lymphoma; breast cancer; thyroid disruption; preterm births; neurological effects; and memory, attention, and verbal skills deficits in children (Garabrant et al. 1992; Cantor et al. 1992; Chevrier et al. 2008; Cohn et al. 2007; Jurewicz and Hanke 2008; Korrick and Sagiv 2008; Longnecker et al. 2001; Rathore et al. 2002).

Research has examined the effects of persistent organic pollutants on the Akwesasne (DeCaprio et al. 2005; Kinney et al. 1997) and include the following: evidence of an association between PCB exposure and elevated anti-thyroid levels (TPOAb) in young Akwesasne adults and in breast feedbreast-fed youth and infants (Schell et al. 2009); a relationship between PCBs and serum triglycerides and cholesterol levels among Akwesasne adults (Goncharov et al. 2008); an effect between PCB exposure and cognative function among Akwesasne adolescents (Newman et al., 2006, 2009); PCBs and age of first menstruation (Denham et al. 2005; Schell and Gallo 2010); and PCB exposure and serum testosterone levels (Goncharov et al. 2009), diabetes (Codru et al. 2007), and thyroid disease (Sukdolov et al. 2000; Schell et al. 2004).


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