The Cold War ended in 1991, but new federally-funded research conducted by the University of New Mexico (UNM) shows that more than a quarter of Navajo women and babies living today have high levels of the radioactive metal uranium in their systems, a remnant from the days when active mining was conducted on their reservation to create weapons. Per an article published by The Washington Post on Monday (October 7), much of that mining took place in Indian Country in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and the rest of the West. 

The results were shared at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight field hearing in Albuquerque. At the hearing, Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer of the Navajo Area Indian Health Service, reportedly said that 781 women were screened during the first phase of the study and 26 percent of them were found to have uranium levels that exceeded those found in the highest five percent of the country. And the study found that newborns—who also have high concentrations of the dangerous substance in their blood—continued to be exposed to the metals during their first year.

Joined by Representatives Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), committee chair Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) led the hearing. In his introduction, Udall said that “thousands of abandoned uranium mines dot the Western landscape, hundreds on the Navajo Nation alone, continuing to expose families to the ill effects of radiation, including kidney failure and cancer—conditions linked to uranium contamination.” For this reason, he said he is “working hard in Congress for legislation that would provide just treatment to victims of radiation exposure through amendments to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. Today’s hearing was about understanding the past and remedying past wrongs.”

For some, like Haaland, who has personally witnessed what uranium exposure can do to the community, the help cannot come quickly enough. “We all deserve to live healthy lives free from the impacts of harmful radiation, but the legacy of uranium mining in Indian Country puts our communities at risk,” said Haaland, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. “Everyone in the auditorium today probably knew someone who is affected by working in a uranium mine. I certainly do. A relative of mine lost his hearing due to his exposure. Today’s hearing shed light on the impacts, the current situation, and improvements we can implement to ensure our communities can heal.” 

Researchers at UNM will continue to track the long-term effects of the uranium exposure.