Health Disparities and Toxicant Exposure of Akwesasne Mohawk Young Adults: A Partnership Approach to Research

By Schell, Lawrence M.; Ravenscroft, Julia et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Health Disparities and Toxicant Exposure of Akwesasne Mohawk Young Adults: A Partnership Approach to Research


Schell, Lawrence M., Ravenscroft, Julia, Cole, Maxine, Jacobs, Agnes, Newman, Joan, Environmental Health Perspectives


In this article we describe a research partnership between the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation and scientists at the University at Albany, State University of New York, initiated to address community and scientific concerns regarding environmental contamination and its health consequences (thyroid hormone function, social adjustment, and school functioning). The investigation focuses on cultural inputs into health disparities. It employs a risk-focusing model of biocultural interaction: behaviors expressing cultural identity and values allocate or focus risk, in this instance the risk of toxicant exposure, which alters health status through the effects of toxicants. As culturally based behaviors and activities fulfill a key role in the model, accurate assessment of subtle cultural and behavioral variables is required and best accomplished through integration of local expert knowledge from the community. As a partnership project, the investigation recognizes the cultural and socioeconomic impacts of research in small communities beyond the production of scientific knowledge. The components of sustainable partnerships are discussed, including strategies that helped promote equity between the partners such as hiring community members as key personnel, integrating local expertise into research design, and developing a local Community Outreach and Education Program. Although challenges arose during the design and implementation of the research project, a collaborative approach has benefited the community and facilitated research. Key words: adolescents, Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, community-based participatory research, health disparities, Native American, partnership research, polychlorinated biphenyls. Environ Health Perspect 113:1826-1832 (2005). doi:10.1289/ehp.7914 available via http://dx.doi.org/ [Online 18 July 2005]

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There is considerable concern about the possible effects of endocrine-disrupting compounds such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on the development of thyroid function (Brouwer et al. 1998; Osius et al. 1999; Persky et al. 2001; Ribas-Fito et al. 2003) and neurobehavioral maturation (Guo et al. 1994; Jacobson et al. 1990; Schantz et al. 2003). Risk of exposure to environmental contaminants such as PCBs is not an individual choice but is related to larger political and economic factors. Minority communities are often at special risk of exposure, as they are more often affected by toxic landfills, incinerators, dumping, mining, and other environmentally damaging activities (Akwesasne Notes 1993; Bryant et al. 1992; Chavis et al. 1983; Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ 1987; Mohai and Bryant 1992; Schell and Czerwinski 1998). Native Americans especially suffer from a combination of these risk factors as they strive to maintain cultural identity, are often economically disadvantaged, and are perceived by mainstream society as ethnically distinct.

The Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, New York, "the land where the partridge drums" (LaDuke 1999, p 11), has shared a disproportionate amount of environmental injustice since the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the St. Lawrence-FDR Power Project in the 1950s. Cheap hydroelectric power led to the development of several major industries directly upstream, upwind, and upgradient from the community. The industrial sites have contaminated the St. Lawrence with PCBs (Ecology and Environment, Inc. 1992; RMT, Inc. 1986; Woodward-Clyde Associates 1991), and Akwesasne now sits directly adjacent to a National Priority Superfund Site while two New York State Superfund sites are nearby and immediately upriver [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 1984]. Some local species of fish, birds, amphibians, and mammals have PCB levels that exceed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's tolerance limits for human consumption (Ford et al. 1995; Lacetti 1993; Sloan and Jock 1990). Akwesasne is a potential candidate for designation as an Environmental Justice Community (EJC) by the U. …

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