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Research Fellowships

Tribal Risk Assessment: Assessing Health Risks Related to Waste Disposal Sites Impacting Alaska Tribes

EPA Office of Research and Development

EPA National Science Foundation Graduate Research Internship Program (GRIP) Opportunity

Opportunity Title:

Assessing Health Risks Related to Waste Disposal Sites Impacting Alaska Tribes

Research Area:

Sustainable and Healthy Communities

EPA Lab/Center/Office:

EPA Region 10, Tribal Waste program, Pollution Prevention and Communities Branch, Division of Land, Chemicals, and Redevelopment;

Co-sponsor: EPA Office of Research and Development, Center for Public Health and Environmental Assessment

Location:

Seattle, WA

Duration:

3 - 12 months

Brief Summary:

The management and disposal of solid waste is one of the greatest challenges for many remote Tribes. Due to insufficient geological conditions, remote location, inability to export, and/or high waste processing costs, proper waste disposal to minimize risk to resident populations is extremely difficult. These described waste conditions are common for Alaska Tribes. Roughly three-quarters of Alaskan Village disposal sites are within one mile of homes and up to 30 percent are within one-quarter mile of homes. Most Alaska Tribes rely on their traditional way of life, for example, gathering water from traditional sources. Health impacts can result from inhalation and ingestion exposures to contaminated air and drinking water, as well as from spread of disease via insects, birds, and other vectors.

The GRIP student intern will have the opportunity to learn and engage in research and analyses focused on Alaska tribal health exposure pathways associated with waste. The internship project scope encompasses the following components: reviews of scientific research, literature reviews of exposure assessment, mapping human health risk assessment methodologies, researching social determinants of health, and, community-based participatory research methods, and sampling methodologies. Detailed information is provided below (please read the Opportunity Description, Internship Focus).

Opportunity Description:

Background: There are over 200 federally recognized Tribes in Alaska, most of them are off the road system and rely on their traditional way of life. Due to insufficient geological conditions, remote location, inability to export, and/or high waste processing costs, proper waste disposal to minimize risk to resident populations is extremely difficult. Human waste, household hazardous waste and electronic waste may be co-mingled with typical solid waste in Class III landfills (commonly referred to as open dumps). The co-mingling of wastes allows for the transport of contaminants around the land and water resources. To make the issue more complex, some individuals with a source of treated water may still gather water from traditional sources, collected near their community. Roughly three-quarters of Alaskan Village disposal sites are within one mile of homes and up to 30 percent are within one-quarter mile of homes. Even permitted landfills in these areas lack a liner and/or use contained open waste burning for some of their waste disposal needs. Health impacts can result from inhalation and ingestion exposures to contaminated air and drinking water, as well as from spread of disease via insects, birds, and other vectors.

The focus of this internship project is to research, assess, and develop conceptual models on the health exposure and ecological pathways and endpoints associated with health impacts of waste in rural Alaska, affecting Alaska Tribes. The intern will perform data and literature reviews, assess research gaps, and identify community concerns and interests. The intern will engage with Alaska Tribes and various organizations and agencies to ensure that the research meets the needs and concerns of communities. The research will also apply the problem formulation principles put forth on the CADDIS website (epa.gov/caddis), using conceptual models to frame the assessment question(s) and pathways to be evaluated and to identify potential data and evidence sources. Depending on the length of the internship, the student may work on any of the following areas under the mentorship of EPA public health and risk assessment scientists:  review existing research and scientific literature related to this topic; characterize multiple routes of exposures and map human health risk assessment methodologies; research exposure pathways for Tribal lifeways; research social determinants of health; research community-based participatory research approaches; develop methodology framework for various sampling approaches.

The intern will work with Tribal, public health, and waste program contacts, researchers including risk assessors, toxicologists, and epidemiologists, among other contacts, in assessing health risks and research translation.

Examples of project questions that the student may pursue include:

  • What are potential health exposure pathways of concern and critical risks from landfills, impacting Alaska Tribes?
  • What are the potential contaminants of concern with each health exposure pathway, including factoring in Tribal lifeways?
  • What is the fate and transport in the environment of these contaminants?
  • What types of data needs to be collected to address various health exposure pathways?
  • What type of sampling methodologies are ideal in terms of approach and preference from Tribes?

Opportunities for Professional Development:

This internship offers an opportunity for developing and demonstrating skills in research, analysis, problem solving, policy, and cross-cultural communication in a topic of importance to Alaska Tribes.

The student will develop knowledge of diverse environmental health topics and cross-cultural communication. The internship provides networking and professional development opportunities within research, policy, and program development areas associated with the health impacts of waste in rural Alaska work, waste, Tribal and environmental programs, and associated cross-cutting programs. The intern will have the opportunity to engage with Tribes, Tribal organizations, public health, academic, governmental, and research-based organizations.

Point of Contact or Mentor:

Angel Ip (ip.angel@epa.gov)

NSF Field(s) of Study:

Life Sciences, Science Policy (Social Sciences)

Research Fellowships