Bitter Sweet or Toxic?
Indigenous people, diabetes and the burden of pollution
Contamination of First Nations, Mohawk and O'odham lands linked to diabetes
By John Schertow
WINNIPEG—Diabetes is now widely regarded as the 21st century epidemic. With some 284 million people currently diagnosed with the disease, it’s certainly no exaggeration—least of all for Indigenous people.
... There is growing evidence that diabetes is closely linked with our environment. More than a dozen studies have been published that show a connection between Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); carcinogenic hydrocarbons known as Dioxins; and the “violently deadly” synthetic pesticide, DDT and higher rates of the disease.
O'odham and Diabetes
The Tohono O’odham Nation’s experience bears a close resemblance to Grassy Narrows: the world’s highest rate of diabetes can be found in the southwest Arizona nation. According to Tribal health officials, nearly 70 per cent of the population of 28,000 has been diagnosed with the illness. The O’odham People make up the second largest Indigenous Nation in the United States.
Lori Riddle is a member of Aquimel O’odham Community and founder of the Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment (GRACE).
GRACE was instrumental in the 10 year struggle against a hazardous waste recycling plant that operated without full permits on O’odham land for decades. Owned by Romic Environmental Technologies Corporation, the plant continuously spewed effluents into the air until it was finally shut down in 2007.
The Romic plant was not the first contributor to the O’odham’s toxic burden, explained Riddle. Looking back to her childhood, she recalled: “For nearly a year, [when] a plane would go over our heads, you could see the mist. We never thought to cover our water. The chemicals just took over and they became a part of us.”
From the early 1950s until the late 60s, cotton farmers in the Gila River watershed routinely sprayed DDT onto their crops to protect them from bollworms. According to the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), each and every year, the farmers used roughly Twenty-three pounds of DDT per acre.
In 1969, the State of Arizona banned the use of DDT; by this time the river was gravely contaminated. According to the ATSDR, farmers then switched to Toxaphene, a substitute for DDT—until it was banned by the US government in 1990.
Because of these chemicals, Riddle explains, the O’odham were forced to abandon their traditional foods and adopt a western diet. Farms also went into a recession, forcing many families to leave their communities. Companies, such as Romic, began moving on to their territory, exasperating the situation. “It’s taken a toll on our quality of life,” she says. “I’ve cried myself to sleep.”
The O’odham are dealing with what Riddle terms “cluster symptoms” including miscarriages, arthritis in the spine, breathing problems, unexplainable skin rashes, and problems regenerating blood cells. This in addition to diabetes, which frequently leads to renal failure, blindness, heart disease, and amputations.
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