Solution Overview

Solution Name:

Protect Medicinal Plants

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One-line solution summary:

Assessing risks from legacy mining to the Diné (Navajo) people through measurement of heavy metal uptake into traditional medicinal plants.

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Pitch your solution.

Medicinal plants are critical to the continuation of Native American and Indigenous communities’ culture. Unfortunately, heavy metal uptake by medicinal plants poses a potential health risk, as metal uptake by plants and subsequent exposure to humans are unknown. Heavy metal contamination to soils can result from anthropogenic activities; this has occurred within many indigenous communities because of colonial mineral and energy mining development on Native lands. This research project will identify how traditional medicinal plants react to heavy metals within soils and will construct an exposure assessment to predict human health risk to heavy metals, including arsenic and uranium. Findings will be shared with the Navajo community for use in developing medicinal plant usage guidelines that are protective of community health. It is expected that the developed environmental justice guidelines will be transferable to other indigenous peoples and communities, as they share medicinal plants and similar histories of legacy mining.

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What specific problem are you solving?

The main objective of this project is to understand the interactions between heavy metals and medicinal plants, with a focus on the public health of medicinal plant usage in indigenous lands with heavy metal contamination due to legacy mining. The Navajo Nation has a mining history that began in the early 1940’s with uranium and eventually coal mining. These areas and mines are left unremediated and pose a significant health risk to residents and individuals who harvest medicinal plants on these lands. Currently, the uptake of heavy metals by traditional medicinal plants and subsequent human exposure is unknown. Plants such as Sage are used widely for medicinal and spiritual purposes in indigenous communities, and the Navajo community of over 150,000 people is no exception. A history of exploitation of natural resources in indigenous communities from mining and colonial development that has led to anthropogenic contamination of many natural resources, including soils. Many indigenous communities are affected by the potential use of heavy metal contaminated plants.

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What is your solution?

The project solution will utilize advanced analytical chemistry (ICP-MS, X-ray fluorescence) and biological techniques (plant root border cell detoxification activity) to quantify and visualize uranium and arsenic in samples. Samples will consist of soil and plant samples from Salvia and Thelesperma. Greenhouse experiments will be implemented to control for external factors. There will be controls (no exposure), and varying levels of toxic arsenic and uranium that will be utilized to expose relevant medicinal plants. ICP-MS will give a direct quantification of the translocation from soil to plant. Handheld X-ray fluorescence will be used as a screening tool to identify soils with elevated arsenic and uranium. Border cell techniques will be implemented to understand the defense mechanisms against heavy metal toxicity in the root zone of Salvia and Thelesperma

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Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit?

This project will directly benefit the Navajo Nation community. The Navajo Nation has over 170,000 residents on an area larger than West Virginia that spans three states. On this land base, there are over 500 abandoned uranium mines and a 44,000 acre coal bed that have been left unremediated. This solution will benefit the Navajo community because it will locate areas to avoid or harvest medicinal plants safely. We will also determine if these plants are accumulators of heavy metals, specifically in the medically important plant parts. This will be shared with other Native communities who have also been impacted by legacy mining.

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Which dimension of the Fellowship does your solution most closely address?

Provide healthy and sovereign food, sustainable energy, and safe water

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Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Fellowship and your selected dimension.

This project directly aligns with healthy food. In many Native communities and cultures, medicinal foods can also be utilized as a food source. Salvia is a widely known food additive in many cultures and Thelesperma a well known Navajo drink which is also shared with surrounding Native communities for similar reasons. This project focuses on the cultural longevity of medicinal plant usage and safety, as these communities continue their traditional knowledge practices that predate mining development. 

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In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

Tucson, Arizona, USA
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What is your solution’s stage of development?

Prototype: A venture or organization building and testing its product, service, or business model

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Who is the primary delegate for your solution?

Richelle Thomas

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Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your primary delegate.

Diné/Navajo

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Is your primary delegate a member of the community in which your project is based?

Yes, tribal member.

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More About Your Solution

Which of the following categories best describes your solution?

A new business model or process

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Describe what makes your solution innovative.

Various studies have aimed to remediate heavy metal contamination from mine tailings utilizing phytoremediation. This has proven to be a unique process, due to the various accumulation abilities of the numerous plant genus and species. This solution is innovative because the objective of the project is to identify “potential” accumulating capabilities of medicinal plants, so that we can protect the public health of indigenous people. The project is intended to ensure public safety, while incorporating both traditional ecological knowledge and scientific approaches to solutions to ensure cultural preservation. 

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Describe the core technology that powers your solution.

Advanced analytical chemistry (ICP-MS, X-ray fluorescence) and biological techniques (plant root border cell detoxification activity) to quantify and visualize uranium and arsenic in samples. Samples will consist of soil and plant samples from Salvia and Thelesperma. Greenhouse experiments will be implemented to control for external factors. There will be controls (no exposure), and varying levels of toxic arsenic and uranium that will be utilized to expose relevant medicinal plants. ICP-MS will give a direct quantification of the translocation from soil to plant. Handheld X-ray fluorescence will be used as a screening tool to identify soils with elevated arsenic and uranium. Border cell techniques will be implemented to understand the defense mechanisms against heavy metal toxicity in the root zone of Salvia and Thelesperma

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Provide evidence that this technology works.

The analytical and biological techniques that will be utilized for this project are widely utilized in environmental research and heavy metal toxicity. This will be helpful because we will be able to understand the outcomes of this project. 

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Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:

  • Ancestral Technology & Practices
  • GIS and Geospatial Technology
  • Imaging and Sensor Technology
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Select the key characteristics of your target population.

  • Rural
  • Minorities & Previously Excluded Populations
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Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?

  • 3. Good Health and Well-Being
  • 15. Life on Land
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In which state(s) do you currently operate?

  • Arizona
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In which state(s) will you be operating within the next year?

  • Arizona
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What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?

Within the next year, I am hoping to have a better understanding the two medicinal plants that will be utilized for this project. I am hoping to have data that can be effectively utilized. Within the next five years, I plan on initiating policy recommendations to the Navajo Nation to implement a medicinal plant protocol to ensure public health. 

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What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?

As we are currently seeking funding to help us achieve the overall mission and objectives of the project, financial support is one of the primary barriers to the project. Our second potential barrier is the cultural sensitivity component of the project, we need to ensure that we make recommendations that are culturally respectful. 

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How do you plan to overcome these barriers?

We will continue to seek funding to support the mission and objectives of the overall project. 

For the cultural sensitivity component, we will review each documentation numerous times. We will also ensure that the recommendations are incorporated into the final product when the results are shared/presented. 

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About Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?

Other, including part of a larger organization (please explain below)

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If you selected Other, please explain here.

The solution team is part of The University of Arizona. I am currently a graduate student proposing this solution as part of my graduate research. 

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How many people work on your solution team?

Currently there are six team members. 

Full-Time Staff-1

Part Time Staff-2

Contractors or Other Workers-3

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How many years have you worked on your solution?

Approximately one year.

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Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

The team members all having various areas of expertise and experience ranging from microbiology, border cells, analytical chemistry, policy, and traditional ecological knowledge of the project. As a team, we have the capabilities to make decisions and adjustments throughout the project as needed. 

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What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?

We do not currently partner with any organizations, but we will begin developing partnerships for the project. 

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Solution Team

  • Richelle Thomas PhD Student, The University of Arizona Department of Environmental Science
 
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