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The Penobscot River and environmental contaminants: Assessment of tribal exposure through sustenance lifeways

August 1, 2015

EPA in collaboration with the Penobscot Indian Nation, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) collectively embarked on a four year research study to evaluate the environmental health of the riverine system by targeting specific cultural practices and using traditional science to conduct a preliminary contaminant screening of the flora and fauna of the Penobscot River ecosystem. This study was designed as a preliminary screening to determine if contaminant concentrations in fish, eel, snapping turtle, wood ducks, and plants in Regions of the Penobscot River relevant to where PIN tribal members hunt, fish and gather plants were high enough to be a health concern. This study was not designed to be a statistically validated assessment of contaminant differences among study sites or among species. The traditional methodology for health risk assessment used by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is based on the use of exposure assumptions (e.g. exposure duration, food ingestion rate, body weight, etc.) that represent the entire American population, either as a central tendency exposure (e.g. average, median) or as a reasonable maximum exposure (e.g. 95% upper confidence limit). Unfortunately, EPA lacked exposure information for assessing health risks for New England regional tribes sustaining a tribal subsistence way of life. As a riverine tribe, the Penobscot culture and traditions are inextricably tied to the Penobscot River watershed. It is through hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering and making baskets, pottery, moccasins, birch-bark canoes and other traditional practices that the Penobscot culture and people are sustained. The Penobscot River receives a variety of pollutant discharges leaving the Penobscot Indian Nation (PIN) questioning the ecological health and water quality of the river and how this may affect the practices that sustain their way of life. The objectives of this Regional Applied Research Effort (RARE) study were to:
Develop culturally sensitive methodologies for assessing the potential level of exposure tocontaminants that Penobscot Indian Nation tribal members may have from maintainingtribal sustenance practices.
Conduct field surveys and laboratory analysis on targeted flora and fauna for chemicalexposure to dioxins/furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), total mercury and methyl-mercury.
Assist the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) by providing thenecessary data to conduct a Public Health Assessment for the Penobscot Indian Nation.
Establish protocols for assessing the level of exposure to PCBs, dioxins/furans and mercuryto PIN tribal members as a consequence of gathering tribal plants for medicinal andnutritional purposes; as well as consuming fish, wood duck, and snapping turtle as a primarysource of nutrition.
Survey surface water, drinking water, and sediment from the Penobscot River and IndianIsland to assess the exposure of PIN tribal members to environmental genotoxicants thatcontinue cultural sustenance practices.
This research initiative collected and analyzed sediment and biota to determine the level of contaminant exposure to Penobscot tribal members. Natural resource utilization patterns and exposure pathways were identified based on discussions with the Tribal elders. Identification of Tribal exposure factors (exposure pathways and contaminant concentrations) was essential for accurately assessing potential long-term Penobscot Indian Nation tribal members’ exposure. Based on this study, ATSDR’s Public Health Assessment (PHA) concluded that the Penobscot Indian Nation (PIN) tribal members who eat fish and snapping turtle at the ingestion levels suggested in the Wabanaki Traditional Cultural Lifeways Exposure Scenario Report (Wabanaki Exposure Scenario) may be exposed to harmful levels of mercury, dioxins/furans, dioxin-like PCBs, and ot

Citation Information

Publication Year 2015
Title The Penobscot River and environmental contaminants: Assessment of tribal exposure through sustenance lifeways
Authors Valerie Marshall, Daniel Kusnierz, Robert Hillger, Joseph Ferrario, Thomas Hughes, Janet Diliberto, Carl E. Orazio, Robert W. Dudley, Christian Byrne, Richard Sugatt, Sarah Warren, David DeMarini, Adria Elskus, Steve Stodola, Steve Mierzykowski, Katie Pugh, Charles W. Culbertson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70160743
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Columbia Environmental Research Center