A grant from the Environmental Protection Agency will enable the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to study climate change and contaminant shifts in the Bering Strait region.
The researchers will look at how contaminant shifts could affect human health in rural communities, and develop an adaptation plan. Much of the focus is on traditional foods.
The health consortium, or ANTHC, will receive $888,282 as one of six organizations to receive an EPA grant for environmental health research, the agency announced July 23.
The grants were focused on supporting health and sustainable tribal communities by focusing on two areas — climate change impacts and air quality issues — according to EPA Project Grants Officer Cynthia McOliver.
"The purpose is to support Tribal communities to understand and address different environmental health issues that face them," McOliver said.
The six grants total about $5 million, and were awarded through a competitive grant process, McOliver said, that looked at whether the proposal was technically sound and fit the EPA's mission. Tribal governments, universities, environmental groups and others were all eligible to apply.
ANTHC's application fell into the climate change category.
"Their application was found to be very strong by the reviewers," McOliver said.
She noted that the project had an integrated approach to the issue, and looked not only at the contaminant shift, but also what the change could mean for human health, and how to adapt.
Reviewers "felt like this was a very critical approach to addressing the needs in Alaska," she said.
Work on the project will likely begin in the next several months, McOliver said. ANTHC has three years to use the funding.
Researchers will use previously collected data to look at contaminant shifts, work with communities to gauge the potential impacts and collect more data.
The fieldwork component of the project includes water sampling, looking at tissue of subsistence-harvested animals, and sampling shellfish for the presence of paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP.
The researchers are interested in macrobiological pathogens that can move between animals and humans, McOliver said. The idea is to see if there are any animal-related infections that can be tested or measured based on climate and winter shifts in pathogens over time.
The water aspect of the project looks for tundra water sources where warmer seasons could result in a bacterial impact of mercury that is transported by air from Asia, according to the project proposal. Village water treatment systems don't measure or treat the bacteria, but the researchers wrote that it could be found in village water sources due to changes.
The project looks at PSP because shellfish are a common subsistence harvest, and there could be increasing PSP levels due to more algae blooms from environmental changes.
The team will also look at some data on contaminants that already exists, as well as information about animal movements, to gauge future changes.
Eventually, the research will include an adaptation plan
"That will be heavily driven by communities," McOliver said.
The researchers plan to work with Tribal councils and community members to identify top concerns and develop strategies to handle changes in foods, water supply.
ANTHC researchers have had two previous projects funded through similar EPA tribal health grant programs, McOliver said.
"They've been very successful as applicants," she said.
A past project, which ends this year, was focused on environmental justice and climate change, particularly maternal and child health.
That project also looked at the human health impacts of different contaminants, and focused on Alaska Natives in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region. ANTHC worked with the Center for Disease Control, or CDC, on that project, McOliver said.
Information from: (Anchorage) Alaska Journal of Commerce, http://www.alaskajournal.com