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UMass-led team to assess smoke risks inside hunter tepees

In this Thursday, May 29, 2014 photo  David Weeden of the tribal history department stands in a "Weety8" at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum in Mashpee, Mass.  (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

In this Thursday, May 29, 2014 photo David Weeden of the tribal history department stands in a "Weety8" at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum in Mashpee, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

AMHERST — A $700,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency will allow a team led by a University of Massachusetts researcher to travel with Native American hunters in Canada to determine how dangers from their meat-smoking practices can be diminished.

Richard Peltier, an assistant professor of environmental health science at UMass, heads up the project that will measure the air quality inside the tepees where Fort Albany First Nation hunters, who live in Ontario, Canada, smoke their game.

“World Health Organization estimates that about 7 million people per year die because of air pollution,” Peltier said. “About half of them come from indoor exposures, and, of those, most are from developing nations.”

The UMass grant is one of six awarded by the EPA last week to identify and reduce tribal health risks associated with climate change, indoor wood-smoke exposure, environmental asthma and other tribal concerns, according to a statement from EPA.

The other recipients are Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium of Anchorage, Alaska; Swinomish Indian Tribal Community of La Conner, Wash.; Yurok Tribe of Klamath, Calif.; Little Big Horn College, of Crow Agency, Mont.; and University of Tulsa of Tulsa, Okla..

“This tribal-focused research will help identify impacts of pollution on native people and communities, and will help inform people to reduce health risks,” said Curt Spalding, regional administrator for EPA’s New England office in a statement.

Peltier, who begins his study in September, will be joined by students from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University in Toronto, as well as a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow from UMass. They will start by observing meat-smoking methods and analyzing the chemistry of the smoke. Then, in the spring, they will accompany some 25 Fort Albany hunters, who travel to remote locations seeking game such as geese and ducks. The hunters set up camp for two to six weeks, Peltier said, smoking the meat they acquire inside their tepees. The smoke produced emits dangerous air pollutants like organic carbon and black carbon, according to Peltier. “The more material in the air, the more toxic the air pollution,” he said, though “any amount of exposure leads to health problems.”

Peltier said he first observed the hunters’ smoking methods while he was working on a different project several years ago and was alarmed by what he saw. “In terms of air pollution and exposure, this is horrendous,” he recalls thinking.

About a year ago, he and a collaborator from Ryerson University went to Ontario to do a pilot study to determine whether further research would benefit Fort Albany First Nation, as well as other indigenous communities. “We went and set up tents, and ran smokers the way they are typically run,” he said. They found the indoor level of air pollutants that resulted to be above U.S. EPA outdoor exposure standards.

This time, Peltier said, his team will partner with Fort Albany First Nation to do research in the community, although details have not been finalized. Peltier said the scientists intend to keep out of the hunters’ way as much as possible. “It is a subsistence activity, and we don’t want to interfere with their typical activities or make them feel uncomfortable,” he said.

Peltier anticipates the project will take about three years — two years to collect data, and one year to analyze the results.

Based on the findings, he said, the team may recommend solutions such as swapping tent wood stoves for propane stoves. “Propane doesn’t emit anywhere near the amounts of pollutants,” he said. He also hopes to reinforce indigenous knowledge in the younger community members. “The young don’t always accept older knowledge,” he said. “Something like removing bark from wood before burning it helps reduce air pollution.”

Peltier said he expects the research will benefit not only tribal nations, but anyone working with wood smoke. “Wood smoke is a major problem, for any community that has a lot of wood smoke exposure,” he said.

Marjorie Aelion, dean of the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, called Peltier “a unique researcher. He is an excellent environmental chemist who uses advanced and innovative analytical instrumentation, and applies his research to real-world public health settings,” she said in a statement. “As a result, his research will have direct positive impact on the health and well-being of the communities with whom he works.”

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