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Traditional Lifestyle Meets Modern Problem

EPA researchers work with the Penobscot Indian Tribe to examine the links between traditional practices and health risks from environmental contamination.

Canoe on the water

A host of traditions such as fishing, hunting, basket weaving, harvesting wild plants and medicinal roots, crafting birch-bark canoes, and building and maintaining sweat lodges have helped the people of the Penobscot Nation carry on a unique cultural identity. This traditional lifestyle is centered on sustainable interactions with the natural environment.

However, today a very modern problem threatens their time-honored way of life.  

The Penobscot Indian Nation Exit EPA Disclaimer is located on the Penobscot River in central Maine, downstream from several industries that discharge waste and effluent directly into the river system. As early as 1987, discharges of dioxin and industrial waste led the State of Maine to issue health advisories limiting the consumption of fish harvested from the Penobscot River. In 1997, the advisory was revised to include PCBs and mercury. The advisories remain in effect today. The Penobscot Nation’s own Natural Resources and Health Departments began issuing tribal-specific health advisories for the Penobscot River beginning in 1998.

“These troubling health studies have led Tribal members to worry about continuing their traditional practices such as gathering medicinal plants from the river, eating foods such as duck and turtle meat, or using raccoon fat to make birch-bark canoes. If tribal members lose their ability to engage in their traditional practices, there is a fear that they may lose their Native American culture altogether,” says Robert Hillger, EPA Regional Science Liaison in Region 1.

Hillger is managing a study to evaluate the potential threat from specific pollutants on Penobscot tribal activities and assess the public health risks associated with continuing these practices.

The work is part of EPA’s Regional Applied Research Effort (RARE) program. Run by the Agency’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), the program provides research support on high-priority, regional, applied science needs. In addition to funding research, the program fosters scientific collaboration among EPA regional offices and ORD laboratories and centers.

The Penobscot study integrates principles developed collectively by EPA’s Tribal Science Council to focus on the management of risk as applied to cultural practices. It is among the first project in EPA Region 1 to bring that collective thinking to bear on a real-time environmental and public health problem.

The research has been evaluating the presence of a variety of contaminants (dioxin, PCBs, PCB congers, and mercury) in several fish species, turtles, ducks, and plants at target sampling sites along the Penobscot River. The long term objective is to help tribal, federal, state, and local decision makers determine the best scientific procedure for contaminant exposure assessment. The overall goal is a healthy, functioning ecosystem where the Penobscot Nation can maintain a lifestyle based on sustainability and tradition.

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