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MSU’s AirCARE1 Tracks Results of Navajo Exposure to Uranium

AirCARE1 used in New Mexico

AirCARE1 Mobile Air Quality Lab has been deployed to help investigate health problems caused by particulate air pollution in rural communities in the Southwest.

Numerous studies have shown that people who are exposed to high levels of air pollution experience an increased risk of developing serious cardiopulmonary health issues such as hypertension and asthma. Now, a team of investigators will use the AirCARE1 Mobile Air Quality Laboratory to support the University of New Mexico’s (UNM) investigation into health problems caused by particulate air pollution in rural communities in the Southwest.

Jack Harkema, University Distinguished Professor, Department of Pathobiology & Diagnostic Investigation, and James Wagnerassociate professor, Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, both in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, are working with Masako Morishita, associate professor in the MSU College of Human Medicine to support project Principal Investigator Matthew Campen, University of New Mexico professor and cardiovascular toxicologist, to examine the systemic inflammatory repercussions of inhaled metal-rich particulate matter derived from abandoned uranium mine sites throughout the Navajo Nation in the four-corners region of Arizona and New Mexico.

The purpose of the study is threefold. First, the AirCARE1 Mobile Lab will collect particles that blow off the open mines during dust storms and Dr. Morishita will characterize their size, shape and composition. The second task is to determine if inhaled particulates have an adverse effect on the heart, lung, and blood vessels of murine models afflicted with maladies exemplified in the local population, such as atherosclerosis. Finally, Harkema says, “we will work to understand the biological mechanisms that underlie the pathology caused by exposures to these potentially harmful dusts.”

Harkema’s lab manager Ryan Lewandowski is working with engineers of the Navajo Nation to install and support the AirCARE1 Mobile Lab. Primary data on the local tribal population indicates higher than normal incidences of inflammatory health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, including atherosclerosis. “It’s very exciting to be in the field, studying the very air the people are breathing,” and then connecting it to specific illness, Harkema says. Especially, he says, “When we can bring attention to long-neglected environmental health issues of rural peoples like the Navajo.”

From 1944-1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands under leases with the Navajo Nation. Until now, nobody has characterized the windblown particles, nor have they connected them directly to adverse health effects. As storms blow contaminated dust, the effects may extend to larger population centers such as Albuquerque, New Mexico, where more people may be exposed.

“Our research is especially designed to help identify the pathobiology and toxicology of these airborne particulates,” says Harkema, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, who is widely recognized for his work in inhalation toxicology, and toxicologic pathology of the respiratory tract in laboratory animals. “We are interested in individuals with pre-existing health conditions, which may be exacerbated by short- or long-term particle exposure,” Harkema says.

The long-range goal of Harkema’s studies is to understand the biological mechanisms of toxicant-induced airway injury in order to better prevent or treat the health effects of air pollution.  “We know particles in the air can exacerbate pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular disease in people,” Harkema said. “We need to understand why. There are many different components to air pollution, and we want to determine which of these are most harmful and where there come from.”

  • via the College of Veterinary Medicine website

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