Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland signed Public Land Order 7917, which protects areas of the Superior National Forest from federal geothermal and mineral extraction leases for the next 20 years.
Tiny plastic bits found in the stomachs of spotted seals harvested by village hunters show how microplastics have spread in the ocean.
PITTSBURGH — A group of citizen scientists have observed a substantial influx of nurdles — small plastic pellets about the size of a lentil — in the Ohio River, which provides drinking water to more than five million people.
“In the last few months, we’ve seen a huge surge in nurdles,” James Cato, a community organizer at the Mountain Watershed Association, told Environmental Health News (EHN) in November. “Where we’ve normally been detecting about 10 nurdles per sample, we’re now seeing 100.”
Cato and other citizen scientists have regularly conducted “nurdle patrol” since 2020, taking to the river in boats to collect nurdles from water and sediment samples. Their goal is to establish a rough baseline for how many and what types of nurdles are in the water before Shell opened its massive new plastics plant along the Ohio River in southwestern Pennsylvania.
But these particular nurdles represent just a tiny fraction of the microplastics plaguing the Ohio River and other freshwater bodies across Pennsylvania and the country. Broken down pieces of plastic packaging, bottles, or bags, and plastic fibers used in synthetic textiles (like nylon) — basically any pieces of plastic that are less than five millimeters long — are also considered microplastics.
What’s happening with the influx of nurdles in the Ohio River exemplifies how hard it is to track down the sources of such pollution and determine who is responsible for cleaning it up. And amid the confusion, scientists are just beginning to understand the consequences to wildlife and human health.
“When I started looking into this a couple years ago, freshwater environments weren’t really on the radar because most research on microplastics had been focused on marine environments,” Lisa Emili, a researcher and associate professor at Penn State University Altoona, told EHN. “That’s starting to change as we increasingly recognize that freshwater environments have the ability not only to transport microplastics, but also to accumulate them.”
A leaf along the Ohio River. Citizens scientists have seen an influx of the pollution.
Credit: James Cato
Nurdles found in the Ohio River by Mountain Watershed Association and Three Rivers Waterkeeper
Credit: James Cato
Shell’s plant, which came online in November, will produce up to 1.6 million metric tons of plastic nurdles every year to be used in many consumer products, including single-use plastic packaging and bags. But the influx of new nurdles showed up before the plant opened, and the nurdle patrollers think they’ve traced many of them to a different source.
“These nurdles are really tiny, about the size of a poppy seed and about an eighth the size of regular nurdles,” Cato said. That unique appearance allowed them to track a trail of them to an outfall on Racoon Creek, a tributary of the Ohio.
The outfall belongs to a company called Styropek, which manufactures expandable polystyrene pellets, or EPS — rigid plastic pellets that are later expanded with air to double their size, then used to manufacture insulation and packaging products similar to Styrofoam. According to its website, Styropek is the largest manufacturer of these pellets in North America.
“We found thousands of these nurdles downriver of Styropek’s outfall and just two upriver,” Cato said. “There were also lots of nurdles on the riverbanks — so much that it looked like snowfall, coating plants in white — and they basically formed a bull’s eye around the plant, so we’re pretty confident they’re coming from there.”
The groups first noticed the nurdles in September. As private citizens, they couldn’t investigate further without trespassing on Styropek’s property, so they alerted regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About a month later, the EPA referred them to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP), at which point the groups filed a complaint with that state agency and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to ask them to investigate.
Their contact at the Fish and Boat Commission wanted to help, but didn’t think they had legal jurisdiction to do so. Jamar Thrasher, a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency had performed an inspection at Styropek about a week prior to receiving the complaint, and “found nothing floating near the facility’s outfall or in the stream and identified no violations.” Still, in response to the complaint, he said the agency “requested that Styropek develop and integrate a more expansive plastic pellet/nurdle housekeeping plan to prevent potential discharge through any outfalls.”
The groups doing nurdle patrol alerted Styropek to the problem. In response, the company hired an environmental consultant, verified that they'd had an accidental release of plastic nurdles into Racoon Creek, and began working to identify causes of the spill and plan remediation efforts. In late December, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation to Styropek for the nurdles.
"We are working closely with [the Department of Environmental Protection] and are actively investigating, and we are committed to implementing necessary corrective actions," Styropek spokesperson Danielle Kephart told EHN. "We remain dedicated to the health and safety of the communities in which we operate, and I plan on keeping Three Rivers Waterkeeper updated on our investigation as I am able."
This incident proves that the nurdle patrollers are doing essential work — and indicates that without their vigilance, releases of plastic nurdles into waterways would likely go unnoticed by regulatory agencies.
Nurdle pollution is largely unregulated. There are no international regulations on it, but in 2022 the United Nations resolved to create an international treaty aimed at restricting microplastic pollution in marine environments. A draft of the rule is expected to be complete in 2024.
In the U.S., no agency is charged with preventing or cleaning up nurdle pollution — nurdles aren’t federally classified as pollutants or hazardous materials, so unlike oil spills or other toxic substances in waterways, the Coast Guard doesn’t clean up nurdle spills.
Most state governments don’t have rules in place related to nurdle monitoring or cleanup, and in other parts of the country, it has sometimes been unclear who bears responsibility for regulating its pollution, resulting in an alarming lack of cleanup when spills do occur.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Lauren Camarda said nurdles are prohibited from entering waterways under Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law and the Solid Waste Management Act, both of which should enable the agency to hold polluters accountable for cleaning up nurdle spills.
Plastic pollution in oceans has gotten lots of attention, but researchers are now discovering that microplastic pollution in fresh water is also pervasive.
A study published by the nonprofit environmental advocacy group PennEnvironment in October found microplastics in all 50 of the “pristine” Pennsylvania waterways the group sampled — all of which are classified by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection as “exceptional value,” “high quality” or Class A trout streams.
Research on microplastics in fresh water across the U.S. is still limited, but scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere they’ve looked, including many waterways that feed the Great Lakes and the lakes themselves, rivers throughout Illinois, and California’s Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers.
Microplastics can kill fish and other wildlife that ingest them by making their stomachs feel full when they’re not, but emerging research suggests they can also enter fish through their gills or skin, poison their flesh and travel up the food chain, which has implications for other types of wildlife and human health.
“Microplastics piggyback other pollutants like bacteria, heavy metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and PFAS [per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a.k.a. ‘forever chemicals’],” Emili said. “We know they’re not good for us, but unlike other pollutants, we don’t even know how to set maximum daily loads for microplastics to avoid health consequences because they come in all different sizes, chemical compositions and levels of toxicity.”
Nurdles account for a large proportion of microplastics in waterways — by weight they’re the second-largest source of micropollutants in the ocean (after tire dust).
"The study that really scared everyone found microplastics in human blood."
Credit: Oregon State University
Microplastics have been found virtually everywhere on the planet — from the top of Mount Everest, the highest elevation on Earth; to the Marianas Trench at the very bottom of the Pacific Ocean; in fresh rain and snow, in the cells of fruits and vegetables, in the bodies of animals and humans and even in placentas and newborn babies.
“But the study that really scared everyone found microplastics in human blood,” Emili said. That study, published in May 2022, was the first to detect microplastics in human blood. They showed up in 80% of people who were tested.
“This means we’re starting to see not just ingestion of microplastics by animals and people, but also absorption of really, really small microplastics at a cellular level.”
It’s not yet entirely known how having microplastics in our bodies and blood impacts our health, but other research suggests the pollution can damage human cells, while other scientists have hypothesized they could increase cancer risk and cause reproductive harm, among other health problems. And we do know that some of the toxic substances that piggyback on microplastics, like heavy metals, PFAS and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are associated with numerous health problems including higher cancer risk and reproductive harm.
Researchers are also worried that an influx of microplastics in fresh water has the potential to disrupt natural carbon cycles, further fueling the climate crisis, according to Emili.
“If we’re substituting plastics for something like natural sediment, microbes may gravitate toward them more than natural sources, which could upset the larger carbon sequestration cycle,” she explained. “We don’t know for sure, but this is also something we really need to look at.”
The groups doing nurdle patrol in the Ohio River are working with researchers at Penn State University to build a “nurdle library” — an index of the various nurdles they’ve collected with information about where each one came from and what it’s made of.
These libraries could help them quickly identify large quantities of nurdles they spot down the line. But there are many potential sources for nurdles spills, and identifying where each piece of plastic came from poses its own challenges.
“Nurdles start to degrade once they’re in the environment,” Emili explained. “The way they started out their life looking, chemically, is not necessarily what they’ll look like after degrading. That makes it harder to say for sure where they came from.”
In May of 2022, a train derailment outside of Pittsburgh spilled approximately 120,000 pounds of plastic nurdles into the Allegheny River (along with approximately 5,723 pounds of oil). The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection oversaw cleanup efforts conducted by contractors for Norfolk Southern Corporation, the owner of the rail line responsible for the spill.
The company estimated that 99% of the nurdles were recovered, according to the state agency, but the nurdle patrollers say they still regularly come across pieces of plastic they recognize from that spill. The company hasn’t yet been fined for the accident, and the activists worry that enforcement related to releases of nurdles is inadequate to deter them.
“The cleanup of this incident is ongoing and [the Department of Environmental Protection] DEP is reviewing revised plans for how the operator will clean up remaining pellets,” the agency’s spokesperson Lauren Camarda told EHN. “The remediation and DEP’s compliance and enforcement activities related to this incident are ongoing, and, as such, DEP has not yet assessed a civil penalty.”
A recent report by international conservation organization Fauna & Flora International noted that nurdle pollution isn’t something that can be controlled through individual consumers, and called for a “robust, coordinated regulatory approach from industry, governments, and the International Maritime Organization.”
“So far we haven’t seen satisfactory enforcement even for egregious violations,” Evan Clark, a boat captain and nurdle patrol leader with Three Rivers Waterkeeper, told EHN. “We’re going to keep an eye on Styropek, but for us the bigger picture is making sure we can get our regulators to do meaningful enforcement around plastics in our waterways.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on 1/13/23 to add a response from Styropek.
A group of 24 U.S. senators and representatives are calling on the Biden administration to set legal standards to reduce plastic pollution at home and abroad.
The letter, sent on December 20, points to the recently introduced “Protecting Communities from Plastics Act” bill, which would require a mandatory reduction in single-use plastics, address pollution in environmental justice communities by pausing plastic facilities’ permitting and implementing stricter rules for current petrochemical plants, and would invest in research to better understand the human health impacts of plastic production and waste.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), builds upon the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which was introduced in 2020. The four lawmakers also spearheaded the letter to President Biden, which was co-signed by 20 others, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
“These types of actions show leadership and demonstrate that the U.S. is eager and supportive of policies that will meaningfully reduce plastic pollution,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to President Biden.
The U.S. is the top consuming country of plastic and is one of the “leading drivers of this crisis,” they write.
The letter follows the first meeting of the international Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, a group convened by the United Nations to develop a global plastics treaty, which concluded its first (largely procedural) session earlier this month.
“In light of the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, which continues to work to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, U.S. leadership in reducing environmental harm from plastics has never been more critical,” the members said in their letter.
The letter also comes on the heels of testimony from Environmental Health Sciences’ founder and chief scientist Pete Myers to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment & Public Works last week. Myers warned the committee that chemicals in plastic can block, mimic, increase or decrease our body’s hormones. Properly functioning hormones are vital for our health, and exposure to these chemicals is linked to a host of health problems including cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, impaired brain development and reproductive issues, among others.
“Each year, nearly 11 million metric tons of plastic waste flow into the ocean from land-based sources alone. Without immediate action, that number is expected to triple by the year 2040,” the lawmakers wrote. “There is growing scientific evidence that microplastics, and the toxic chemicals they contain, are impacting human health to degrees not yet understood.”
Beyond the health impacts, the lawmakers point out the plastics sector is set to account for 20% of oil demand by 2050, and remains a key driver of greenhouse gases and climate change.
“We need to take leadership and urgent action, starting here at home, to protect our communities, our economy, and our climate from the continued threat from plastics,” the lawmakers wrote.
Dr. Valerisa Joe-Gaddy joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the importance of including Indigenous people in water management decisions.
Joe-Gaddy, an alumna of the University of Arizona receiving her Ph.D. in environmental science with an emphasis in microbiology, also talks about growing up on the Navajo Nation and balancing the researcher life while being a new mother.
The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.
How are you doing today?
I'm pretty good. How about yourself?
I'm doing wonderful. And where are you today?
I'm located in Tucson, Arizona. Sorry about that. I'm located in Tucson, Arizona. And I'm right, now I'm in my office, working.
I'm just assuming... I'm in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It is cold. snowing. We're talking here in mid November. What is what is it like there? Is it hot?
Um, it's actually really nice weather. Outside is probably about like 65 right now. So perfect weather. And it's going to be about high 70s today. So.
Wow. Yes, that is perfect. I had it in my mind. I had it 100 degrees and sweltering. So I'm glad. I'm glad it's not that. Well. Let's talk about where you're where you're from originally. So not too far from there. But I'm a little bit geographically ignorant of the Southwest. So tell me a little bit about growing up on the Navajo Nation.
Yeah, so I'm from the Navajo Nation. So it's in the Four Corners region between New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. So I grew up on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, in a small little town called Gallup, New Mexico. But I also spent a lot of time on in Lupton, Arizona. So right on the border. It was great, I loved growing up there. There was a lot of things that I feel like I was able to do, that I wouldn't have done otherwise, like, like learning to drive, I learned that at a really early age like 9, 10; because there's no one on the roads. So things things like that, like you don't really take into consideration. They're just kind of normal. Like all my cousins and friends, they all learned to drive early as well. But when I went to college, I realized that wasn't normal. But then there was some other aspects of like the lack of running water, or lack of electricity, and there was not that much infrastructure, or the infrastructure is very poor. So realizing that there was some disparities in that, especially after going to college and realizing that our, the Navajo Nation is a such a poor community, when you really think about in the grand scheme of things.
Now, I don't want to probe on kind of the discomfort but I am curious when you say that you didn't realize, that maybe you realized it more in college. I mean, when you're a kid, though, is is a lack of running water or electricity, Is that something that's top of mind or was that just your reality?
It was just our reality. I mean, I went to school with, you know, with kids, were like that If they didn't have running water and electricity, and like myself included in it, it wasn't wasn't weird. It was the norm for us. And I think that when I think about it now, it it is sad, and it saddens me now. But before, when I was like actually living it, it was normal. Everyone hold water. People you know, I mean, Gallup is still a place where, even today that bottles of water are sold per capita more than any place in the country. And it's just because there's still there's no running water, not even talk about drinking water. I mean, that's just something that I grew up with. And I didn't realize that it wasn't normal to, you know, have all your water come from a bottle.
So, right, right. And maybe on the more positive side, was there, was cultural history part of your upbringing? was kind of the history of Navajo in that region, something that was embraced in your household growing up?
Yes. My mom was very traditional. She tried to teach us Navajo, it's very difficult language to learn. So I don't have a great grasp of it. But my husband, his first language is Navajo. So he and my mom are able to communicate in their native language, and they're really trying to teach my son that. But yeah, I feel like my mom really made sure that the foundation of our household holds a lot of Navajo traditions and cultures and, and even to this day, she's still trying to make sure that my son has a lot of those cultures and traditions instilled in him while he's while he's growing up. So
yeah, that's excellent. And I I definitely want to hear more about that, that little boy, later on. But first, let's talk a little bit more about you. So as you move throughout your education, where in and how did you know that you wanted to be a researcher? And what did that path look like for you?
I didn't know. I think like a lot of people, when you go to college, you have this thought, and this dream that you're gonna be something great. And for me that was going to be a lawyer. When I went off to college, I quickly realized that I hated law. I hated policy. I hated all my, my criminal justice classes. So. But science has always been something that I was always doing really well in. When I was, like a freshman and sophomore, I was taking the AP classes that were meant for seniors. So even by the time I was a senior in high school, I opted, I finished every single science class at high school, so I kind of had to go to online classes, just to keep up and be able to graduate on time. So but, but I was I was already... really love science. And so... but that wasn't something I wanted to do. It was kind of funny. I, I went, I went to New Mexico State University for my undergrad. And it wasn't until I saw or actually met one of my professors, their name was Dr. Unguez. And she she really saw something in me. She she was a professor in the biology department, and she kind of took a chance to me. I feel like I wasn't the best student in undergrad, I worked a lot and then I kind of had the mentality that C's get degrees, but Dr. Unguez saw something and she was... she really pushed me and she told me that you know, working in a laboratory might help mitigate a lot of the financial burden that I was struggling with at the time. They paid more and plus they offered a stipend for your, for your, for the semester that you're working with. And she really encouraged me to apply. So she really did take a chance on me. I mean, considering that all my fellow classmates during that time have all become like doctors and they went on to really great things, it was a little intimidating because I didn't feel like I belonged. And I think that's always something that I struggled with having that impostor syndrome, especially in graduate school, and then even now in my professional career, but I really ended up liking working in the laboratory, and working in a lab that allowed me to be outside and also go back into the laboratory. So a little bit of both not just strictly lab work, or bench work. So.
well, having gotten to know you a little bit and your work a little bit more, I can say, it's not just the other folks that went on to do some really incredible things, but you are too. And maybe that mentorship was this this moment. But what is the defining moment or event that you feel like has shaped your identity up to this point?
Oh, so right at the tail end of my PhD, I went to Hawaii for for a vacation. And I was really excited to go on this vacation. I was, I plan months in advance, and I plan all these events and, and when we got there, I was just really tired the whole time. And I was really, really sleepy. I didn't really want to do anything. And then I felt guilty the whole entire time I was there. And maybe like the last night I was there, I realized that I felt guilty for taking this vacation, taking this week off essentially celebrating the end of my PhD, But I didn't feel like it was then because I still had a chapter left to finish. And, and I just remember just sitting there being like, "I'm in one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet, I can't help but think that I'm failing, and I'm not doing enough. And I'm not. I'm not... I'm really not taking in this moment. And, and I'm, I'm just sitting here and I'm sad and upset with myself." And I really, that's when I realized that I was in a state of like major depression of coming from during my PhD, and just a setting all these expectations of myself that I couldn't accomplish. And even though I planned for this vacation, and, and was really excited when it finally came, it didn' really move me and I felt really upset by the whole time of the rest of the trip because I was just like, why I don't deserve to be here. This should be something that's I should be celebrating, but it really wasn't. And so when I finally came back from vacation, I realized that I was not in the best place mentally and that I needed to get some help. And then that's kind of where my journey of like mental health and then taking a step back from a PhD. I was one chapter away from being done. And I had to take a semester off, like, step back just to be able to, you know, be mentally okay. So that was that was a big defining moment for me, because it really did make me realize that I need to put myself first.
Well, I'm so glad you discovered that and thank you so much for sharing that. I feel like your experience, obviously is unique as that is your own personal experience, is so common in graduate school for people. There's just such an emotional and mental burden and burnout that I feel like is so common as I talk to folks on this podcast and people in my own life who have gone through similar things. So hopefully your story is one that's more common, where people understand that it is okay to take a step back and practice self-care. So I'm glad you came out the other side.
Right and I had some of the best supporters and even my PhD advisor was really great throughout my PhD is just, it was ...When you're doing a PhD, you get, you get so... even competitive within yourself, you know, obviously you have to have some type of motivation to get going. And I think I lost that during that time. So
Well, that's a great point. I think a lot of the issues are external, just external pressures from the PhD program. But equally, are internal. I think a lot of folks who go through these programs are hardwired to be very hard on themselves. And it sounds like maybe you're one of those people. And I don't think that's an uncommon thing for people pursuing higher education. So yeah, no, that's an excellent point, the internal and external kind of rigors and pressures, they can be overwhelming. We can, we can move on to your work, because you did come out the other side, and you've been doing some excellent things. So I wanted to start by talking about... I know you're passionate about tribal water resources, which is such a crucial issue down where you're at. And one of your jobs and things you've been looking at is diversifying voices in water resources. So I was first, if you can just kind of give listeners a crash course on some of the water issues faced by Southwestern tribes in particular. And second, maybe explain why it's important to bolster diversity and tribal involvement in water resource management.
Right. So I can probably sum it up in one word right now. So it's drought. We're going through a huge drought right now. A mega drought. Well, so specifically, I can't really speak to a lot of the other tribes. But for the Navajo Nation, I know that the drought has been hard, especially since that the Navajo Nation is still in litigation and still trying to get their water rights. Out of the 22 tribes here in Arizona, only four of them have water rights, meaning that they're able to claim some of that water, the other tribes and Navajo don't have rights yet. And they're still contesting a lot of the recent, it was just like a few months ago that there is an update, that they're still in litigation. So that was the update that they're still fighting for water rights. But for I feel like the reason why it's important to bolster diversity is we need a better understanding and we need all different people at the table right now. Right now there's, it's just essentially industry and state government that are at the table. And really, that's not what the state is comprised of, we're comprised of many different tribes, many different businesses, including like small businesses; and so I think there's a lot of smaller entities that don't get a voice at the table. So that's really what I'm trying to promote, and why I think it's important. For example, in Washington State, after of like a 40 plus year litigation, finally, was settled, after the tribes, the state, the cities, and the small businesses all came together to the table and finally just hashed it out. It took about 10 years, but that was something that everyone walked away from the settlement happy. So kind of having making sure that everyone that uses water, which is essentially every living thing on earth, has a has a say in what goes on, especially here in Arizona, when it's really, really difficult, especially with the drought going on right now.
That's a good too into the weeds. And if this isn't something, you know, no problem. But when you talk about four tribes who don't have water rights, what does that look like? Does that mean they do not have control, jurisdiction, kind of say in how the water in their land and on their reservation, how it's used, how it's managed, is that accurate?
Yeah, their management has to do so through the state I believe. Again, a lot when I work with tribes I focus more on irrigation aspect, so I'm not quite sure about like drinking water or other potable uses. I mostly focused on what they're doing with agriculture. So I can't speak to drinking water per se. But I know that for tribal agriculture, sorry, it does have to go through their council and see how much is allotted for the agriculture aspects.
And having paid attention to this and in your work, I'm wondering what are some of the ways that you think communication between state federal agencies and tribes could be improved when it comes to water access, water resources, and what that better communication would look like?
Right, and that's kind of where my, my nonprofit that I developed come in. And it's more about developing communication and understanding, what I feel that is lacking is that people don't know how to communicate and work with tribes. A lot of the times, tribes don't have a written language. And so a lot of the history is told through stories and artwork and song, dance, and other forms of media. So when, when non-natives come in, and you know, mentioned, like, "oh, you should read a book, or you should know, read this policy or something," it's not, it's not information that will be retained, especially within tribes, just because that's not how we grew up to communicate and to learn, learning is very hands-on for us, we retain so much more by like, talking about in a story, like I was saying, or even visually, am is, it's so much better than to read a policy or to go to a class just discussing policy. So making sure that that information, whether that be from agricultural policy, we then translate that information and try to make it into a form that is very easy to understand, whether that be like a digital form, like media, like videos, or essentially podcasts explaining it, and also trying to explain it in their native language, to natives. And vice versa. A lot of the times when natives go to discuss these water problems, I feel like they end up talking and they can talk and talk and talk. And they're not really saying what they need to say, I mean, they are, but they're telling it in a story or something. And a lot of non-natives don't quite understand that. So also getting some of these historical or these stories that have been passed down for generations out there and in media form as well. So that non-natives can view that and and, and have a better understanding of why water and other water resources are so important to natives. So just trying to bridge that, the miscommunication and in the misunderstanding, and how that different groups learn in different ways. So we're really trying to bridge that and make sure that everyone has a good understanding and the best access to the agriculture policies here in Arizona.
You mentioned your nonprofit, tell me about that. Tell me about starting a nonprofit what is called First of all, and what some of the work on the ground now or what you plan to do in the future looks like?
Um, yeah, well, so my nonprofit is called irrigation resources reaching indigenous growers and tribal entities. And if you're just wondering, it actually it's an acronym for Irrigate. And it's actually Irrigate-AZ right now because we're, we're just focusing on the tribes and everything in Arizona. And so what we're really trying to do again, like I said before, was just bridge this understanding and making sure that, that both natives and non-natives have resources available to them in many different forms of media so that they can so they're able to make better decisions and choices Regarding water, water resources. Yeah, so right now, that's, that's pretty much my nonprofit in a nutshell. Right now we're just in the beginning stages. It's been a process. I'm not, I'm not a business person. I'm not. I'm a scientist by training. And so it has been a completely different world. And something that I'm not quite familiar with. Luckily, I have the MIT Solve fellowship. So they have been such a huge resource and help in helping me develop my nonprofit, however, it is a lot of work. And then I noticed that I'm constantly Googling, you know, terminology that I never thought I would have to. Like, what's your, like? What's your EIN number? And I'm like, "Oh, my goodness, what is that?!" And I'm like, Okay, I need to Google that real fast. But yeah, it's things that I'm quickly realizing that we are right now, we're small is just me and my web designer right now. But we're working so much. And on top of that, I'm doing my job here at the University of Arizona, as well. So yeah, we may quickly need to acquire more people. A lot sooner than I thought we did. Because we are going through a lot. And I feel bad for my web designer, who is also going out to a lot of the different tribes up in northern Arizona and filming a lot for me, since I'm down here in southern Arizona. And I can't go up there all the time.
I wonder if there's a lesson in that, in what you all are trying to do. When we look at federal or state policies. I'm thinking about where I live in Michigan there, you know, there are frameworks within where agencies work with tribes in the state, there's 12 tribes here. And every tribe is different, you know, and there's what? 500, you know, 538, I believe I may have that number off, federally recognized tribes, andhaving a framework to work with tribes, you know, quote, unquote, doesn't doesn't look the same for every tribe. So it sounds like you are trying to make this much more culturally competent by working with individual tribes and within the way they learn and their kind of the historical context of water and what that looks like, is that accurate?
Right in, we are looking at all the different policies each tribe has, because each one of them is a little different. So we will do luckily, being here at the University of Arizona, we have some really great researchers that have already built a lot of these relationships with these tribes. So I feel like I haven't really been able to ask them and rely on them to be able to, to introduce tribes because even though I am Navajo, I may not be as you know, accepted in another tribe, just because I mean, these are still each tribe has had issues dealing with universities, with state government and, and so I mean, essentially, a lot of tribes are very wary of outsiders –including myself, it's not like I'm an exemption or anything just because I'm Navajo. So I'm very lucky that the university does have a lot of connections with all the different tribes that I can reach out to these researchers and they're able to help me.
So I know one issue, especially for rural communities is access to labs or resources to test water, whether that's irrigation or potable drinking water, but there's some encouraging signs on that front. I was wondering if you could talk about some technologies that you see as maybe bridging this gap and giving access to communities who maybe didn't have it before.
Right. And I feel like that's such an important part. I think that or I'm sorry, any field, testing is important. And it's not just for rura communities for anyone that deals with food safety. In 2018, there was that huge romaine lettuce outbreak in Yuma, Arizona. So if there was in-field testing, then I'm sure that they could have caught it a lot earlier than they did. So it's not just rural communities, I feel like essentially, especially for food safety, there needs to be better in-field technologies to be able to predict some of the pathogens that they're testing. But it's hard, it's also one of those really things that's really difficult, because you're sampling out in the environment. And so you're, you're going to always have those caveats, you know, wind's always going to change water is going to, you know, it's, it's, it's difficult to work out in the environment, and in the field. So, but some of the technology that I'm really excited, and I really want to try and get my hands on, and work around the Navajo Nation is doing a lot of like sequencing testing and identification. So point-source identification, meaning that I want to see exactly what is essentially pooping in the water. And so whether that be birds, or bears or you know, sheep or dogs or something, I want to be able to pinpoint that source. So those are some new technologies that are starting to come out that are infield and that are just about the size of an iPhone. So that would be very, very cool to have. And to utilize that, especially in the place like on the reservations, or like you said, where there's not like access to a laboratory, since a lot since some of these samples you need to get on ice immediately, and then you need a sample within four to six hours, or else the testing fails. And when you have to drive four to six hours just to get to a town, it's not feasible to do some of these testing. So I am looking forward and I would really like to get my hands on some of the the new technologies that are out there.
And so you as you mentioned, you are a relatively relatively new mother, I don't know the age of your child. But I know this is a relatively new thing. And I know this was also a life changer for you, as I think happens to a lot of folks. Can you talk about that experience of pursuing a PhD? You are starting a nonprofit and you seem like you have plenty going on? And having a baby?
Yeah, Ethan, that's my son's name. He is three. He is just my favorite person in the world. He, I just love him so much. Yeah, but it was very again, he was a surprise both to me and my husband. At the time, my husband was in medical school and I was just I finished my break. It's kind of funny, that timeline. I did mention that I was in Hawaii and I decided to take a break, about a semester. And then the following semester when I finally reentered that's when I found out I was pregnant. So people always joke, they're like you had a little bit too much fun during your little break. So I guess it's true. But anyway. Yeah, so I was pregnant. And I was finishing up my last chapter. I was literally three weeks away from defending, my son wasn't was not expected to be born until 12 more weeks, so I was like, Okay, I'm right there. However, I just, I met with my advisors and I just remember feeling like really sick that morning with my advisers. And I was just like, I don't I don't feel so good. And then they're getting excited. They're like your your dissertations pretty much complete. You just need to do these last few edits. And then we could submit it to your committee. And I was so close and I was just like, Okay, that sounds good. And my plan was to defend and then you know, essentially have a baby like so I was getting that was my timeline. However, right after I met with my advisors a couple of weeks before it was about to defend, I got sick really sick that night and And I ended up in the hospital. And the doctors then told me that, that they're going to have to induce my son who was born around 11 weeks early at the time. So that was really scary. And I, I was, I was super sick, I was in the hospital for about two weeks myself, my son was in the hospital for a little over two months in the NICU. And that was such a surreal experience. And I think that if I, if I didn't take that time for me to mentally prepare myself and get into a better state of mind, I don't think I would have been able to get through that situation as well as I did. A lot of people were very impressed by or even just astounded that when when my son was in the NICU, and I would spend all day with him, you know, because he had a lot of different procedures going on, both for his lung as in his heart, and it was just a very stressful time. But the only thing that made me feel better was when I was holding him. And I could read to him and I, and I feel really bad now, because I didn't read to him baby books, I read to him, a lot of the like, environmental microbiology journals, he was able to listen to a lot of a lot of different type of like Point-Source contamination emerging journal articles while he was in the NICU. The nurses would laugh because they would be walking by and I'd be talking about wastewater treatment and different types of techniques. And they're like, well, he seems to be fine. He's just enjoying it, sitting with you. And so, and I was also sitting there a lot of the time on my iPad, doing edits and trying to finish up my dissertation. So yeah, it was it was, it was such a weird, weird, weird end to my, my PhD for sure. But when I was finally able to bring my son home, and finally able to defend, it was, it was nice too because I was able to actually focus on my dissertation and actually defending my dissertation, and focus on not having my son, you know, worrying about my son in the hospital, he was sitting right next to me the entire time he was sleeping. He was only about like, four months at the time. So he was, it was it was great. And I and that was about a year apart from when I went to Hawaii to then. And so just that whole year difference from you know, being such a, such a, in such a bad state to like, essentially not even wanting to get up to do anything to, you know, being able to defend with my newborn baby by my side. And just being happy and, and accepting and doing everything in my power that I could to bring the best defense that I could. So yeah, it was it was a really surreal experience when I think about it now, that so much can happen within a year.
So yeah, well, that is a that is a really beautiful story. And I am so happy to hear that. It seems to have turned out okay. I also like to think when you say that he's your favorite person. I think it would be funny if a parent was like, you know, he's like, my third favorite, like my third favorite person. And I assume that he is, he will be on this podcast as a microbiologist in you know, 18 years or so I'll be asking him "how did you get into microbiology?" "I don't know. But it seemed like from the very beginning it's all I could think about"
All I could dream about, you know what was a I was I was reading a lot about beaver feces and trying to figure out different types of point source for beavers and I was I read that that article like three times just because I was so fascinated by the methods. So he read, so I'm sure he's probably gonna be like I just have a things about beavers
So I have a couple more questions for you, Val. I've thoroughly enjoyed this. It's been so great getting to know you and your story. What are you optimistic about? I'm it sounds like there are some new technologies. There are some some stirs communication between tribes and resource agencies. I'm just wondering in your field and your nonprofit, what are you looking at and feeling hopeful about?
And feeling hopeful, more about the communication aspect, I feel like people are getting, are starting to understand that just because you say something, does it mean that people listen to what you have to say. And it's really how you say it really affects how people listen. And, and what I mean by that is like, people can go ahead and talk and talk and talk all they want. And, but it's not until you identify or like, be able to connect with them. And, and have a betterunderstanding of each other that they're able to listen to and actually take what you what they listen to, and what they are learning and make that interaction. So I'm a little bit more hopeful about that. And I'm hoping that this this, this new change that I'm seeing, and it's not just within the state of Arizona, but a lot of other states about tribes, finally getting a seat at the table, that that is something that is not just a, you know, a fad, like a DEI fad or anything like that, that it's actually here to stay. And that, that there's so much that we can learn from each other.
Excellent. Well, it's really great to hear that. And I ask those questions because it can be so doom and gloom covering the environment. And it's always nice to have doses of optimism from folks like yourself. So I have three rapid fire questions. And you can just answer with a word or a phrase, coffee or tea.
My favorite thing to grow in the garden is
My one guilty pleasure
True crime podcast.
And this one, you don't have to just stick into a word or a phrase you can give me a little more if you want it. But what is the last book that you read for fun?
I read last night, "The Grumpy Monkey" to my son. Um, that's the last book I read. Before then. I'm pretty sure it was something about Waldorf child education or something. But yeah, the last book The last book I read was the grumpy monkey which is about... a grumpy monkey.
On that note, Val, this has been an absolute pleasure. I appreciate you taking time. I'm so glad you're in this program. And have a great day.
All right, thank you so much.