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Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma in Native Americans

native americans have higher chances of contracting lung cancer and mesothelioma

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the “fair treatment for people of all races, cultures, and incomes, regarding the development of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Alternatively, the outcome of ‘environmental injustice’ toward a defined group of people has led to disadvantage, disparity, and exploitation, that their communities and members continue to endure. This specific ‘injustice’ mentioned comes from discarding asbestos and other waste onto their lands. Respectfully, we are talking about the environmental ‘injustice’ of the Native American People and the inequality they have endured due to environmental exploitation or injustice that has led to consequences such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Over 3,000 Diagnosed With Mesothelioma Every Year

Overall, more than 3,000 people are diagnosed with mesothelioma in the United States every year. Mesothelioma cancer is caused exclusively by exposure to asbestos. Asbestos is a group of six types of mineral fibers found naturally in the earth. All six types of asbestos mineral fibers are carcinogenic. As a result, mesothelioma can develop due to asbestos particles or fibers that settle in the lining of the lungs, abdomen, and the heart. The latency period for mesothelioma can be quite long and has been known to last over forty years. Asbestos exposure can also lead to lung cancer if not directly mesothelioma.

Native Americans Are Second-Most Likely To Get Mesothelioma and Lung Cancer

Native Americans are the second most likely group to be diagnosed with mesothelioma and lung cancer out of all races identified in the United States. Studies have shown that severe poverty, sub-standard or lack of healthcare, and other disparities have led to the disadvantages Native American tribal land residents have with exposure to hazardous waste and asbestos.

Over 573 Federal Tribes Recognized

In the United States, there are over 573 federally recognized Native American tribes. Before this country was founded, explorers have been landing in the North American continent since the fourteenth century. A century or two later, vast amounts of European settlers began to occupy large parts of the North American Continent. These settlers were not the first people to live in this country. The original inhabitants were Native American tribes that once made up the entire populace of the land known today as the United States of America.

Native Americans Do Not Have The Same Amenities Or Land Available

The original inhabitants suffered significant losses to their way of life, as settlers began to arrive and explore their lands by the masses. With the settlers came disease, strife, warfare, and the eventual organized removal of Native Americans from their original lands. The removal acts reallocated Native American people from their land to allotted properties or reservations set aside by the United States government.

Here, the inhabitants relocated to these properties did not have the same amenities or land available for them to continue their traditional ways of life. Tribal activities such as hunting, gathering, and growing crops were considered communal and spiritual rituals. These practices were passed down from generation to generation and had already been an integral part of Native American life for centuries.

Due to years of forced segregation, confinement, and legislative removal acts, Native American customs or tribal life either subsided or ended in most cases. With the forced removal of Native Americans from their original lands onto allotted properties or reservations set aside by the United States government, a sizeable socioeconomic disparity was created. Today, over 25% of Native Americans are living at or below the poverty line in the United States and many have contracted diseases such as lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Removal of Original Lands Disadvantaged Native American Culture

Since the removal of Native Americans from their original lands to reservations, they became severely disadvantaged in regards to being in control of their livelihood. Presently, many tribal nations still struggle to adapt or compete with today’s cultural norms and economy. Although in the latter half of the twentieth century, agencies have begun to support the influence of tribal governments to exercise their right to determine their tribal nation’s independent economic, political, and cultural path.

Tribal recognition is limited to tribes who have established legal relationships with the United States government through executive orders and treaties. This type of attention is termed Federal Recognition which recognizes a tribal entity as having a ‘governmental tribal relationship’ with the United States. Federal recognition also supports that the tribe possesses the responsibilities, powers, limitations, and obligations of their nation and the United States. In comparison, being recognized also makes the tribe eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Tribal Laws Are Sovereign

In general, Native American tribes are not under state law and have come under scrutiny due to their sovereignty associated with people, activities, natural resources, and environmental regulations. Jurisdiction does not fall into the state’s hands. Still, there is Federal oversight through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the responsibility of the United States government to protect, defend, and provide services to Native tribes and Native Americans and protect them from health risks such as lung cancer.

The Federal Indian Trust Responsibility

According to the United States Supreme Court, Native American tribes are neither foreign nations nor states. The tribes are described as “domestic dependent nations” that sit in relation to the United States Government as a ward to his guardian. In relation, this is what forms the legal obligation of the United States Government to Native American Indian tribes known as “The Federal Indian Trust Responsibility.” The trust states:

federal Indian trust responsibilityis also a legally enforceable fiduciary obligation on the part of the United States to protect tribal treaty rights, lands, assets, and resources, as well as a duty to carry out the mandates of federal law with respect to American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. In several cases discussing the trust responsibility, the Supreme Court has used language suggesting that it entails legal duties, moral obligations, and the fulfillment of understandings and expectations that have arisen over the entire course of the relationship between the United States and the federally recognized tribes.”

For years, the government and private companies either attempted or exploited natural resources and land use opportunities on Tribal lands. Their sovereignty can be a double-edged sword in the sense that Tribal entities can enact stringent rules regarding their resources or can bargain to lease out their mineral rights to energy resource companies. In turn, Tribes have the opportunity to use their sovereignty to determine which way they want to go, but in the past poor economic conditions have almost put Tribal entities in a corner when it comes to utilizing their resources.

Even with modern technology and economic development initiatives being implemented across the country, developing economic achievement on a reservation is still a struggle. The lack of funding, infrastructure, and remote location access, make the possibility of an economic upturn on tribal grounds an unlikely reality. Besides, financing to help foster or promote business initiatives or ventures can be even harder to secure since Tribal lands or reservations cannot be mortgaged or put up for collateral.

Developing tribal resources can result in a significant amount of revenue and, on the other hand, create unwanted pollution resulting from the effects of mining, drilling, or on-site land disposal facilities. Without proper management and testing, the harmful effects of chemical or asbestos exposure can occur by exploiting these resources and often result in lung cancer. These occurrences will make tribal residents vulnerable to environmental hazards like asbestos or chemical toxin exposure. Under Tribal discretion, the decisions are up to the sovereign entity when it comes to determining what resources or developments they will pursue on their lands.

Tribal Lands Are Sovereign In-Governance And Protected By The United States

Since Tribal lands do not operate under State Laws, they have the leverage to enforce as they can see fit as far as an environmental waiver is concerned regarding hazardous waste, landfill, and other resource sites. Although they cannot supersede the laws of the EPA, they can choose to cater to other outside sources for bargaining rights regarding their natural resources. Besides, the sustainable use of their land for all of its integrity is protected by the United States Government.

One such example can be found when the United States Government first utilized its Federal Indian Trust Responsibility, for seeking and ensuring environmental justice, for Native Americans on their tribal lands. In between the 1950s and 1970s, a dumpsite operated by a corporation, in connection with the tribe, contracted with local oil refineries to dump hazardous waste at a dumpsite, which was located within the Swinomish Indian Reservation, in the state of Washington.

For almost twenty years, the Swinomish tribe lobbied for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to initiate environmental waste cleanup to be performed at the site under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Roughly two decades later, the act was finally linked by the Federal Trust Responsibility of the United States government, which held a duty within the Trust to protect and sustain Tribal lands. The Trust Responsibility ensured that the Tribal lands would be protected under the oversight of the federal government to safeguard sovereign tribal property.

Secondary Exposure Of Asbestos On Tribal Land Leading to Lung Cancer

In the past, illegal dumping on Tribal lands and other properties was a regular occurrence with asbestos-containing materials. Evidence of unlawful dumping known as ‘fly-tipping’ has been going on for years across many Tribal properties. Most of the time, residents on a reservation or allotted lands have no idea that the material was even dumped or what kind of harmful effects were dispersed into the air or water supply.

Alarmingly, Native American tribes are recorded to be disproportionately affected by cancer, and those numbers have slightly risen over the years. In effect, many companies have dumped waste materials on reservations for decades, without the knowledge of residents. Unrecorded dumping may be another reason why lung cancer is also the second contributing cause of cancer in Native Americans. This unauthorized dumping is a pure form of harmful secondary exposure that effects everyone around the area-often leading to permanent consequences such as lung cancer.

Taking Advantage Of Poverty On Native American Reservations According to Bayley Lopez of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, an advocate group, he states “that siting waste on or near reservations is an “environmental justice” problem, given that twice as many Native families live below the poverty line than other sectors of United States society and often have few if any options for generating income. He claims government and private companies take advantage of the ‘overwhelming poverty on native reservations by offering them millions of dollars to host nuclear waste storage sites.”

At times, many Native Americans were torn between storing nuclear or toxic waste on their lands to generate much-needed revenue. Some Tribal land representatives believe that an ‘environmental injustice’ is done when hazardous waste is ‘bargained for’ to be stored or dumped on Tribal lands because of the disparities in income and industry compared to other communities outside of a Native American background.

Lack Of Medical Care Available Or Underserved On Some Tribal Lands

Another major disadvantage that affects Native American communities with mesothelioma cancer could be the lack of medical care available to residents of some of the tribal land reservations. On the contrary, the Indian Health Service (IHS) is one resource communities have access to on the reservations. The IHS is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency is responsible for providing health services to Native American Indians.

The IHS is often underserved due to budget cuts and lack of human and medical resources. At times, this leads to inadequate healthcare options that force many Tribal reservation residents to seek alternative healthcare options outside of the reservations. With the lack of attentive medical screenings or care needed, a lot of Native Americans may be at a severe disadvantage for being able to diagnose or treat any condition, especially mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure.

Tribal Residents Left With Past Environmental Concerns

All in all, many Tribal communities are enduring environmental effects from the past promotions of federal policies and private companies’ exploitation and development of natural resources on Native American lands. Often, the residents are not able to reap the full benefits of their natural resources, but they always seem to be left with the waste that came with it.

Awareness And Education Can Help Progress

Native American communities today are still at a disadvantage in several aspects of health, wealth, and environmental concern from the past and present. Awareness, education, and promotion of well-being can influence the way many Tribal communities progress towards achieving their goals.

If you or a loved are a current or former Native American reservation resident who may be suffering from the harmful effects of asbestos exposure, please contact experienced asbestos or mesothelioma attorney.  

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