Citizen Science 2019: Indigenous People on the Front Lines: Using Citizen Science to Improve Environmental Public Health


The session “Indigenous People on the Front Lines: Using Citizen Science to Improve Environmental Public Health” was organised by Judith Zelikoff (NYU medicine), Kathleen Vandiver (MIT), Esther Erdei (University New Mexico / Missouri Breaks Industries Research Inc.), Shirley VanDunk (Ramapough Lenape Tribe)

Judith  – they are part of the NIEHS, and Esther is in the Native Environmental Health equity Center. Citizen science use to improve health. The speakers are Dona Chavis from NC climate justice collective and FoE. The panel includes Jacie Curnick from U of Iowa and Jeff Currie II from Lumbee Riverkeeper.

DSC_1557.JPGDona – a daughter of the Lumbee nation and recognised the original people who were here.  Come from an oral tradition, and can tell a lot of stories – adding “to moving beyond the historical trauma” to the title – according to Maria is the impact of the loss of possessions, people, and places on a group of people. The connection on citizen science is that the impact of the past cannot be separated from the current reality. Every day is on the front line because of the historical trauma and the current struggle. In NC, the native tribes in NC developed a distrust and have been studied “to death” – even anthropologists checking hair, circumferences of heads etc. People were told that they have to participate in studies by the government. Because of that Citizen Science is a foreign concept. For her people, the relationships to water is critical, e.g. the area is a wetland and colonisation happened only in the mid 19th century. The area has a history of hiding – swampland was a place to live: food, medicine, clothing. The colonisation causes these to disappear. Now she’s working in the environmental NGO sector: suffering from CAFO, coal ash, trees are being cut down, and a gas pipeline. There are impacts from hurricanes. In Robertson County, Hurricane Mathew in 2016 and Florence in 2018, the last was massive and it covered and flooded the whole county. They still have elders who remember the pathways of the water, so the discussion on how to revive the waterway, and they realise that they had a traditional knowledge that can be used to address climate change. With Chapel Hill, they put a grant to monitor the water in the area – it moves forward in a way that includes the concerns and understanding of the community. It provided a way that matches community practice of starting the meeting at the community rate and the scientists were respectful of the community. Now they have the first baseline for the community on the impact of storms and what may be found and what should be done about it. Some methods are traditional, but they can be integrated. A big lesson is that inclusion has to start in the planning stage. Information should be released according to when, what, and how it is to be released.

Kathy Vandiver – a citizen science Passamaquoddy environmental dept. The study was done where the communities were highly involved, pleased with the results, high calibre research and sampling by citizen scientists and community input with a report back. Create a professional pipeline that was improved, and the literacy of the public regarding environmental health was improved. This started with the interest of masters students from civil and environmental engineering. The results – engagement of 22% of the population, 145 wells that tested for arsenic. The students (Abby and Tchelet) used a water sample for standing and running water samples from the faucet at home, checking for led, arsenic and so on. The kits were collected in the community offices – an early workshop didn’t work well, and the students delivered flyer. The results were useful as 26% were above the acceptable level and well owners were given advice on arsenic filters. There was an important aspect of improving the professional pipeline with the tribal environmental dept member who helped in the analysis.  The Passamaquoddy stayed on campus. The Masters engineering students learn how to run the meetings, and the project was also for the community to learn about EPA rules and the health effects of contaminants in the water. Helping to explain to people how to interpret the results. Students learned how to talk with the public, and also created a capacity for tribal members.



Judith Zelilkoff – empowerment of the Ramapough Nationa – a toxic legacy moved to action. Native Americans have a shorter life expectancy by 4.4 years and that is because they are exposed disproportionately to nuclear test sites, uranium mines, power plants, toxic was. 25% of Superfund sites are in Indian country. For 75% in 2013 didn’t have safe water to drink and then there are 61% of air pollution sources. The Ramapough Lenape – the tribal chief came to NYU and they are in New Jersy that are in a Superfund site where the nation lives, 50 miles from NYC. The tribal nation, there were iron mines in their area. In the 1960s, a Ford subsidiary disposed of paint sludge and car parts in the unused mines – with lead paint and for 10 years disposing of paint waste and electronic waste. The result is a 500-acre superfund site. In the area of Ringwood in 1970 they put tarpaulin over the waste, and high level of iron and other pollutants in the area and Ramapough made a lawsuit and got very little to the community. in 2013, statistically, there is an impact of the pollution with diseases, there increase in asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure. People have a lot of concern – they are scared of eating from the garden, can’t use the land, can’t fish and game. Done focus groups and studies on what they can do for them – concerns about water quality was high and they’ve worked together to have and collected water collection that was done by community members with help from graduate students. Tests for lead in the water was done by community members and other contaminants. They used community relevant test kits. Also some trace and toxic metals. In reporting back, they recommended not to fish in a specific area (Sallys Pond) and the chief was involved as a facilitator. Slides are reviewed by community members. Summary: restoring dignity and ownership over their community; prioritise a community research agenda, and change public policy. They back up community concerns with evidence and science.

DSC_1565.JPGEsther Erdie, work in Southeastern USA – 90% Native American are populating the area. There are 3% of the US population are native, there are 573 federally recognised tribes in 36 states. The Navajo Nation has 300,00 people. In 2004 there was recognition that environmental health is needed for tribal land-based cultures. The relationship to the land is very different from urban cultures, and lack of culturally-centred primary research. In 2015 there was a Mine Release in 2015 that impact a large area in Gold King Mine. There are over 4000 uranium mines, so big issue. There is a legacy of the extraction industry that leads to environmental injustice in the south-west US, there are airborne nanomaterial metals (U, V, Si), and lung exposure pathways because it’s an open cast mine. The Navajo nation when examined in 2010, showed 21% high level of Uranium in them. The citizen science goes to 1972 there were discharges and in 1979 tailing spill. There are problems lead to the sampling of radiation from 2002. In Church Rock uranium mine they took samples by community members who act as citizen scientists and identify 376 water source that is exceeding regulated level in 2011. There are problems in different sites and created a traffic light system to indicate how the water can be used. The issue is how the community want to use the information, the Navajo nation is focusing on the creation of a medical school and use the science to address issues. Education is important and needs to integrate traditional ways of thinking and considering issues.

DSC_1568.JPGJefferson Currie II from the Lumbee in North Carolina, and is a riverkeeper. The job is about citizen science, he comes from community background and the watershed that he deals with are brownfields, Swine and poultry CAFO, coal ash, oil and gas pipelines, etc. The approach that he takes is that he continues to talk with community members, and get information. His job is to stop pollution and hold people to account for it. They had a huge increase in poultry operations and there is a problem of not letting the operations growing. People say that the water becomes brown because of the swine CAFO and that is a way to identify violations. Floods – people who are older can explain things on how they are happening. They get reports on flooding that can be caused by solar farm and can local knowledge can work.

Judith – citizen science includes citizens and citizens. There are no short projects with communities and the Ramapough project is one that requires long term commitment and there is a long term commitment.

Dona – the distrust is when there is extractive knowledge an element of academia that is linked to funding, which researchers refuse to help because of funding. There are concerns about contaminations that require long term engagement. Beyond the funding, there will be leaders and people in the community that will continue to carry out the work. Consider other exchange – time, food and more. Need to maintain relationships.

Language – Judith went to learn the language, but there is wide use of English. In Esther case, 30% only speak Navajo and working with the community requires to have community members that are a local speaker, for example, there is a need to have female community researchers because of matriarchal structures. There are Native American that are becoming scientists. Dona – there is also a need to talk about the cultural language, not only the verbal language.

Vi – for true community based participatory research in different communities, ask them what is their area of concerns and help them to design the research and make sure that it is their data. Native American can tell their own stories and their own knowledge. Need to consider. Judith – there can be an interaction, that includes people who with an agreement that they will be the voice of the community.

There are panels that need to be considering the inclusion of different groups, such as black communities is needed to be included from the start of processes and be represented by themselves.

The suggestion of developing long terms relationships with community

Consortia of native academics who are building protocols with native communities to maintain knowledge by the communities of people that integrate traditional and scientific knowledge in themselves. The native academics didn’t experience disconnect – maybe the language and jargon, but there is a need to start with the people first and then it is how the relationship is being built. Native academics are fostering. In terms of self-determination – concepts of Free, Prior and Informed Consent is central. Bottom determinant.


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Professor of GIScience, University College London

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