Across generations, Tribal communities and nations have practiced traditional lifeways to fulfill their needs for food, medicine, and spiritual nourishment. Environmental threats to these lifeways affect millions of people. Over the past two decades, Abt has worked with more than 40 Tribes, Nations, Native American communities, and Canadian First Nations to diminish risks from external forces such as overdevelopment, toxic pollution, and climate change.
Hazardous waste disposal, air pollution, and other contaminants have left a toxic legacy within many Native American communities. Large-scale mining, industrial manufacturing, and other extractive activities in which Native American Tribes played no part or had any control over, have polluted the land, air, and water on which they depend. Recognizing that each population and culture is unique, we conduct Tribal Risk Assessments to assist Tribes in looking holistically at the impacts contaminants have had on their traditional lifeways.
Engaging closely with seven Tribes in northeastern Oklahoma, Abt identified that the risk of exposure to heavy metals is 150 times above safe levels for Tribal communities around the Tar Creek Superfund site. Although mining activities in this area ceased in the 1960s, hazardous waste piles left behind from lead and zinc are still so large they are visible from space. Exposure occurs via traditional lifeway pathways, such as traditionally prepared fish and locally gathered plants used for food and medicinal purposes. As a result of Abt’s analysis, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now incorporating traditional lifeway exposure scenarios in its overall remediation and risk assessments for cleaning up the site.
The Pueblo de San Ildefonso, a Native American community in New Mexico, predates the Los Alamos Lab, built within the ancestral domain, by almost 700 years. In recent times, climate change has contributed to extreme weather events that have resulted in increased movement of radioactive and heavy metal contamination from the Lab onto Pueblo lands. Responding to the Tribal leaders’ recognition of the dangers to their community’s well-being, Abt set up climate planning workshops for community members to come together to explore their concerns and develop resiliency strategies. At the same time, we are assisting the Tribe with a Tribal Risk Assessment to determine the health impacts of Lab-derived contaminants.
The cultural and spiritual values within many Tribal communities are difficult to factor into state and federal policy and regulatory development. How can one monetize a priceless resource whose value is sacred and passed down through generations? In the upper Great Lakes, Manoomin—wild rice—is intrinsically intertwined with the Anishinaabe people’s migration story, their relationship to the land, and their identity—far beyond its price as a product. Ecologically, Manoomin beds are part of complex aquatic ecosystems that support wildlife and waterfowl for reproduction or foraging, while stabilizing shorelines. Today, changes in land use, resource extraction, damming, and other impacts are threatening this vital resource.
Abt developed a Habitat Equivalency Analysis (HEA) tool (.pdf) to characterize the amount of restoration needed as a counterbalance to the degradation of a given habitat to help the Anishinaabe people place a value on Manoomin in a non-monetary construct. Abt worked with the Anishinaabe communities to develop a set of cultural and ecological metrics that we then used to characterize the severity of Manoomin habitat degradation, and benefits of restoration actions for several case studies. In this way, the HEA tool produced a quantitative measure for degraded Manoomin habitat, in terms of equivalent habitat restoration units (acres), without ascribing an impossible-to-calculate dollar value.
Tar Creek Trustee Council Indian Tribes (TCTCIT)
Tar Creek Tribal Risk Assessment Analyses
Pueblo San Ildefanso Department of Environmental & Cultural Preservation
Climate Vulnerability Assessment
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Lake Superior Manoomin Cultural and Ecosystem Characterization Study
Environmental risks are not uniformly distributed across the population—marginalized and minority populations are often disproportionately affected. Environmental risk factors such as proximity to hazardous waste, outdoor and indoor air pollution, and poor drinking water quality are critical factors in one’s health and overall well-being.
Being able to access information about toxic releases in a neighborhood and potential effects on human health is at the core of informing an effective response to the problem. Questions about the release of toxic chemicals require transparent answers: How much? How toxic? Who’s affected? and Where? Abt has been facilitating that transparency for nearly 30 years through our support for EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) program.
TRI tracks toxic chemical activities reported by industrial and federal facilities that may pose a threat to human health and the environment across the United States. Abt’s support to TRI has spanned industry engagement, pollution prevention and reporting training, data collection, and analysis. Over the past three decades, TRI has facilitated more than a 60 percent reduction in annual releases of toxic chemicals, becoming a model for pollution reporting around the world.
To provide risk-related context to the toxics release data, Abt developed a state-of-the art model called Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI) to predict how chemical releases travel through the environment to impact human populations. With this information, communities and regulators can understand and prioritize responses to the most toxic and damaging chemical releases. RSEI data has been used as the foundation for nearly a dozen public information tools, from California’s CalEnviroscreen to EPA’s environmental justice screening and mapping tool, called EJSCREEN. EJSCREEN provides users with a nationally consistent dataset and approach for combining environmental and demographic indicators and is used by EPA to generate preliminary criteria when contemplating environmental justice considerations that may affect communities.
Getting toxic release and toxicity information to the fingertips of decision makers and affected communities is a priority. To this end, we recently helped TRI launch a new search tool that allows users, with a click of a button, to identify TRI facilities located within 10 miles of their location, see a complete list of chemicals released, and review the associated release amounts and potential health effects. The tool also allows users to explore facilities’ compliance issues and pollution prevention activities.
Abt takes a holistic “follow the chemical” approach to help identify new, and manage known, chemicals under EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act, increase transparency about chemical releases, and helps characterize impacts to human health and the environment including restoration and regulatory action support.
Drinking water is a significant risk exposure pathway to toxins, and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a poignant example of toxic and prolific chemicals with devastating health implications and “forever” longevity both in the environment and in the human body. Much of the release into the environment is due to the manufacturing process of the PFAS themselves and of the thousands of products that contain PFAS, such as non-stick cookware, fast food packaging, and firefighting foam. People can also be exposed through the use of these products and through PFAS entering the environment and the drinking water supply. PFAS are linked to cancer, immune system dysfunction, and other serious health problems. We work to expand knowledge of PFAS, identify effects on individuals and communities, and analyze environmental remediation options.
In order to estimate an individual’s blood PFAS levels, we developed and validated a robust series of physiologically based pharmacokinetic (PBPK) models to predict the estimated blood levels of toxins in the body through the course of time. The models were incorporated into a web tool designed to guide concerned citizens through a series of questions that help estimate their own blood PFAS levels in lieu of direct blood testing.
At the community level, we are implementing an epidemiologic study to assess the health effects of possible exposure to PFAS-contaminated water at a site in New Hampshire. We enrolled and collected data from potentially exposed adults and children, supply wells, and water systems serving the area to characterize the historical presence of PFAS.
On a broader scale, we are responsible for extensively updating and expanding EPA’s treatment cost models and drinking water treatability database. Water agencies, regulators, and others turn to these resources to make evidence-based decisions about remediation options for PFAS in drinking water. The EPA Administrator singled out the database and cost models as priorities in the agency’s 2019 PFAS Action Plan.
Certain foods also present high-risk exposure pathways to toxins, especially for children. From conception to adolescence, children have critical developmental windows when the nervous system is more susceptible to damage. Rice cereal is often the first solid food that many babies eat. However, there is a downside—rice cereals can contain arsenic, and arsenic affects neurological development as measured by IQ points. Abt conducted a study to quantify children’s exposure to arsenic through rice cereal and developed a method to predict IQ loss based on the peer-reviewed literature. We found that the adverse health effects and associated economic costs of arsenic are significant. Replacing all infant rice cereal consumed by 0-12-month olds in the United States with arsenic-free infant foods would lead to an estimated $1.2 to $1.8 billion in additional annual earnings later in life by saving almost one million IQ points per year.
An important component of pollution reduction is chemical safety—including creating opportunities and demand for chemical innovation along the supply chain. For nearly three decades, Abt has supported EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, engaging with manufacturers to advance the development and use of safer chemicals and products.
The U.S. federal government is charged with evaluating potential risks from new and existing chemicals, and addressing unreasonable risks to human health and the environment through a robust regulatory process. Abt’s scientists and economists provide critical support to the government with exacting assessments of the economic impacts of chemical regulations and associated health benefits—key to lasting and effective policy change.
Formaldehyde is found in many household items, from dishwashing liquid to composite wood products like cabinets. Exposure to formaldehyde can lead to elevated risks of cancer, asthma, and eye irritation. To support EPA’s 2016 rulemaking to reduce exposure to formaldehyde from certain wood products, we conducted a rigorous survey of manufacturers to evaluate the associated cost and health co-benefits. We estimated that the regulation would result in reducing the number of cancer cases by 26 to 65 per year and reduce cases of eye irritation by up to 600,000 annually. The annualized benefits from reducing these health risks would add up to $186 million.
Lead, a highly poisonous metal, can be found throughout our environment—in the air, water, and our homes. Blood lead levels are generally higher for minority and low-income households because of diminished access to safe and affordable housing. Lead exposure is associated with a number of adverse health effects, and fetuses and young children are especially affected, as lead impairs neuropsychological development. Even small doses of lead, such as those from ingesting lead-contaminated dust, have negative effects on growth and development, learning, and behavior, with potential lifetime impacts on productivity and earning potential.
Abt analyzed the environmental justice implications of a new EPA rule to reduce the amount of lead that can be present in dust on floors and window sills. Our analysis determined that the new rules would indeed benefit Hispanic, Non-Hispanic Black, and low-income children as compared to other race, ethnicity, and income groups. As we explored how avoiding lead’s harm to cognitive development could increase children’s lifetime earnings, we found annual gains could be up to $95 million for Hispanic children and up to $354 million for Non-Hispanic Black children in the United States.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Toxics Release Inventory (TRI); Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators (RSEI); Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Research, Monitoring, & Evaluation; Formaldehyde Emission Standards for Composite Wood Products; Hazard Standards and Clearance Levels for Lead in Paint, Dust and Soil
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Pease PFAS Health Study: Proof of Concept
Healthy Babies Bright Futures
Effects of Inorganic Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal on Children’s Neurodevelopment