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Navajo Suspect Toxic Trailers Behind Illnesses

Posted: Mar 27, 2012

KLAGETOH, Ariz. -- During his 19 years serving at St. Anne's Mission, Bro. John Hotstream has watched a lot of his parishioners grow up and have children of their own.

And of this new generation, many seem to be chronically ill.

Not only that, but the coughing, headaches, watery eyes, and chronic respiratory infections seem to run in families. One might suspect heredity, but Hotstream knew the parents, and although some now have health problems, they grew up as healthy kids.

Hotstream is getting up in years, and recently accepted an assignment close to his hometown of New Orleans. But before he leaves Klagetoh this June, he'd like to get to the bottom of what is happening to its children.

Among the families he's been following, there is one common denominator: They live in old, rundown trailers dating to the 1980s or earlier. He's starting to wonder, could their homes be making them sick?

Valerie Franklin thinks it's plausible. She and her husband moved into their 1989 trailer, given to them by her husband's boss, in 2000.

"Then," she said, "I started having kids."

Actually they already had one, now 14. The other four, ages 8, 7, 5 and 2, were all born while the family was living in the trailer. Every one of them has the same symptoms: red, watery eyes; coughing; lung and throat irritation.

Franklin says they catch every bug that comes along.

"It seems like I'm always taking someone to the IHS," she said.

A few miles west on a dirt road, Sophie Curley's family is in the same boat. Her eight kids, especially the youngest five ages 6, 5, 3, 2 and 1, are constantly ill.

Several of them have asthma and are supposed to use an electronic respirator when at home. But Curley relies on a gasoline-powered generator for electricity, and to run it costs money she doesn't have.

"I try to run the machines about an hour a day," she said.

She opened a cupboard to reveal the tangled tubing of three respirators and a shocking array of medicines her children take daily.

Today, Junior, 13 and Tyioun, 4, are home sick. Junior, who is standing by the woodstove, punctuates his sentences with a dry cough. Tyioun is asleep on the couch. He looks pale.

An older son is watching the baby, whom Curley said is also constantly sick. The IHS gave Curley some plastic sheeting and instructions on how to construct a germ-free enclosure for the infant, but "Where am I supposed to put it?" asked Curley, looking around the cramped space. "We have 10 people in three bedrooms."

That puts a lot of stress on the plumbing, which Curley suspects is leaking into the substructure and causing mold.

"You can smell it," she said, leading the reporter into the bathroom. Indeed, there is a musty odor.

Curley confessed she sometimes sends her kids to school sick because "I think it's better for them to be there than here."

Curley said she's been told her family would qualify for NHA housing, but she's reluctant to abandon her home-site lease.

"I feel like this land is the only thing I have," she said.

Hard to Prove

Barbara Begay, Klagetoh's Community Health Representative, says no one has ever complained to her of an environmental illness, but that doesn't mean it couldn't happen.

"The way people are living out here," she said, "It's not surprising."

If there is something toxic in the trailers, said Eugenia Quintana, head of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency's Air and Toxics Department, the families don't have much recourse.

"If it's a home they're renting from the NHA, we might be able to help them," she said. "If it's individually owned, they're responsible for fixing it themselves."

Even under federal air quality standards, mold is not a regulated toxin.

"Mold is ubiquitous," Quintana explained. "There's even some kinds of mold we eat, like mushrooms."

And it's only toxic to certain people, those with allergies to the specific type of mold that's present.

"Some people get headaches, some people get nauseous, some get respiratory problems, and some people aren't affected at all," Quintana said.

As a population, Navajos have a higher-than-average proclivity toward allergies, said Don Cooke, a Durango, Colo., allergist who some years ago did a study of allergies among the Navajo population between Crownpoint and Nageezi, N.M.

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