Study ties cancer on the Wind River Indian Reservation to uranium tailings site

A group of cancer survivors and their family members join a procession June 21 to honor Natives who have battled cancer. At the Eastern Shoshone Indian Days, a powwow in Fort Washakie.

A group of cancer survivors and their family members join a procession June 21 to honor Natives who have battled cancer. At the Eastern Shoshone Indian Days, a powwow in Fort Washakie. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to expand)

By Ron Feemster
June 25, 2013

Nearly four out of 10 Wind River Indian Reservation residents report that a blood relative has died of cancer, according to the preliminary results of an epidemiological study by the Wind River Environmental Health Initiative.

The two-year study funded by the Indian Health Service suggests that cancer rates on the reservation are higher than the national or state average, according to Folo Akintan, a medical doctor and epidemiologist from the Rocky Mountain Tribal Epidemiology Center in Billings, Mont., who distributed and analyzed health surveys of the Wind River reservation community.

Folo Akinton, a medical doctor and epidemiologist, explains her study of cancer risk on the Wind River reservation June 19 at the 789 Casino in Riverton, just more than two miles from the uranium tailings site.

Folo Akintan, a medical doctor and epidemiologist, explains her study of cancer risk on the Wind River reservation June 19 at the 789 Casino in Riverton, just more than two miles from the uranium tailings site. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to expand)

More than one fourth of the respondents had a relative who died of high blood sugar and one in six had a family death related to high blood pressure, according to the self-reported data Akintan collected.

The study suggests that a uranium tailings site on the reservation about two miles from Riverton is a possible cause of cancer in the community.

“It is a risk indicator,” said Akintan who stops short of calling the tailings a cause of cancer. “You can use a study to find a risk indicator. It is hard to say that this thing in the environment caused that.”

Akintan’s study found that about 3 percent of the respondents reported having cancer now. This is a less alarming number than the reports of family deaths related to cancer, she said.

Akintan presented her data to the Joint Business Council on June 17. She calls the data “leading” but not statistically significant. She hopes to back up the self-reported data and add a level of statistical validity by analyzing additional data from the Indian Health Service — data she has found difficult to obtain.

“I told [the Joint Business Council] the two years is over,” she said, referring to the original term of the study. “I asked them if I should stop now or keep trying to get the IHS data. They said to keep going.”

Using volunteers from the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes, she distributed about 3,000 surveys on the reservation and received 286 complete replies with enough data to analyze. Some replies came from the area near the contamination plume. Others were completed by residents of towns as far away as Crowheart and Kinnear. To be statistically significant, Akintan said, she needed at least 350 complete and analyzable surveys.

Even if she had obtained enough completed surveys to produce statistically significant results, the data were limited by the fact that respondents were self-reporting their family history. She would prefer to rely on government databases.

So far, Akintan has dipped into the state registry of death certificates, which helps explain cancer mortality, as well as the state tumor registry, which allows her to calculate the incidence of cancer — the rate at which new cases appear in the community.

But IHS data will help her calculate a more crucial statistic: the total number of cancer cases on the reservation. This number, which epidemiologists call “prevalence,” more adequately affects the impact of the disease on the community, for it shows the number of patients and families still battling the disease. This is a number that Akintan says will be hard to get without more cooperation from the IHS.

Darwin St. Clair, the chairman of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, took time out from the powwow to discuss the cancer study.

Darwin St. Clair, the chairman of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, took time out from the powwow to discuss the cancer study. (Ron Feemster/WyoFile — click to expand)

“We need all the information we can get,” said Darwin St. Clair, chairman of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. He and other members of the Joint Business Council have offered Akintan whatever help they can to gain access to the IHS records. “If we don’t know,” St. Clair asked, “how can we address the cancer problem?”

Even though the IHS data center in Albuquerque maintains primarily billing records (rather than medical records) they will show diagnosis, treatment codes and a result such as discharge from the hospital or death.

Because the Native American population is a small percentage of the U.S. and state populations, data collected by larger agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control has not been helpful so far, Akintan said.

Akintan says the self-reported data suggests that people on the reservation have faced a higher risk of cancer than people in the state or Fremont County as a whole. The data gathered so far point to higher risk of lung, breast and especially kidney cancers on the reservation.

“When I first came here I was alarmed,” said Akintan, who says all signs pointed to cancer being a serious problem on the reservation.

“It’s one of the reasons I want to keep working here,” Akintan said. “Cancer should be rare. It shouldn’t be every third or fourth family.”

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.

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Published on June 25, 2013

  • http://wyofile.com Ron Feemster

    The study is hardly pseudoscience.
    It is well-conceived epidemiological research that can move toward statistically significant conclusions if additional data is made available. Our journalistic standards require us to report progress and shortfalls in the two-year study, which we do in this story.
    No sensationalism here either. If the limited data had suggested cancer rates are lower on the reservation than in the rest of Fremont County, we would have reported that.
    In pseudoscience, unlike in this study, no amount of data can compensate for flaws in the study design.

  • givemeabreak

    By her own admission this studied is seriously flawed because it relies on self-reported data, and had a low (less than 10%) response rate. This is a non-story at this point, and your reporting of it is disappointing in that you are typically don’t publish this type of pseudoscience. Please maintain your high journalistic standards and don’t fall for this type of sensationalism.

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