Stuart Harris can still remember the sights, scents and sounds of the autumn day when he gathered with his family as a boy and helped the adults smoke deer: crisp leaves, a dusting of frost and the laughter of children mingling with the smell of smoke in the air. For Harris, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), the preparation and flavor of smoked food have been familiar since childhood.
“My first memories are of smoked buckskin and eating smoked meat,” Harris says. “I also remember as a very young child sitting on the floor of one of our cultural centers near my mother and her friends and sisters where the smell of smoke was as real and regular as the smell of coffee in the morning.”
Though smoking food has long been part of Native American culture and, as for Harris, can recall memories of family and community, scientists are questioning the safety of this centuries-old practice. A team of researchers led by Oregon State University scientist Anna Harding is collaborating with the CTUIR to determine whether smoking food may expose tribe members to dangerous levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
PAHs are created by combustion of organic materials and can cause cancer and respiratory diseases in humans. The combustion of oil, coal and gasoline can create high levels of PAHs in industrialized areas, but rural populations can also be exposed to PAHs through wood fires, which are traditionally used to prepare grilled and smoked foods.
“It is important to engage in collaborative research with tribal communities, because the tribes may have disproportionate environmental exposures relative to other populations in the U.S.,” Harding says. “Tribal communities often do not have the resources necessary to conduct the research that is necessary needed to identify exposures that may adversely impact health.”
Harding specializes in public health and is co-director of OSU’s School of Biological and Population Health Sciences in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. She has worked with members of the CTUIR Department of Science and Engineering since 2002 to assess subsistence and environmental exposure among tribal members.
Partners in Science
Her work with the tribe, Harding says, is a partnership. Researchers focus on health issues that tribal members want to explore. The goal is to provide the tribe with knowledge that can help them determine how to limit health risks without encroaching upon important cultural traditions.
“We are interested in helping the tribes develop their own scientific capacity to investigate the problems that are most important to them,” Harding says.
Harding suggested studying PAH exposure to the CTUIR, and when the tribe expressed interest in the project, she and her research team submitted a proposal to obtain funding, which resulted in a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s Superfund Research Program in 2009. The collaborative research with the CTUIR community is one of a number of funded projects and research cores within the Superfund Research Program at OSU.
Though Native Americans have been practicing traditional methods of smoking food for thousands of years, Harding says the health effects of many native traditions, including smoking food, have never been analyzed. Studying the PAH exposure associated with smoking food, Harding hopes, will help the CTUIR evaluate their PAH exposures and design risk reduction strategies, if needed, that are protective of public health.
Residents of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, near Pendleton, Oregon, smoke their meat in tipis and smoke sheds where food is slowly cooked over a hearth stoked with chunks of wood. Members of the tribe may be exposed to high levels of PAHs through inhalation while they are smoking foods, Harding says, and by eating smoked foods.
Harris, who is the director of the CTUIR’s Department of Science and Engineering, says he believes the results of the study will help the CTUIR continue traditions while making the best decisions for tribe members’ health.
“The process of preparing food for storage through the winter remains the same in this ancient tribe as well as throughout the world in similar indigenous communities,” Harris says. “Knowing about the details about the exposure of PAHs can serve only to help guide us to make more informed decisions related to this common and time-tested practice.”
To determine the level of PAH exposure caused by preparing and eating smoked food, researchers evaluated air on the reservation as well as inside the food smoking structures. They collected air samples from inside the smoking structures and urine samples from individuals who had spent time smoking food in the tipi or smoke shed, and also took samples of smoked food.
The samples collected throughout the study are being analyzed in labs at OSU. To evaluate the PAH content, researchers extract particles from the samples with liquid solvents and use the processes of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to separate and identify the different chemicals in the particles, isolating the PAHs.
While the samples are being analyzed, members of the research team will continue to work with the tribe to assess other environmental exposures, Harding says. Collaborating with the tribe, she adds, has allowed the researchers to learn about Native American culture while studying the community’s health.
“We’ve all learned from working with the tribe,” Harding says. “They have their own traditional environmental knowledge and we have learned a great deal about how their environment and their health are connected. It’s been eye opening for me to better understand tribal traditions.”