Earth and Planetary Sciences ETDs

Publication Date

Fall 12-7-2021


Abandoned uranium mines across the U.S. disproportionately affect indigenous communities who suffer numerous intergenerational health consequences from chronic exposure to toxic metal mixtures. The Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine on Laguna Pueblo in west-central New Mexico was designated a Superfund Site in 2013 and exposure risks from inhalation of toxic metals in airborne particulate matter are of concern for the local tribal communities. This research aims to examine atmospheric parameters driving windblown transport of respirable particulate matter in the region, to determine concentrations of heavy metals including U, V, Pb, and As due to the link with potential health risks, and to analyze the mineralogic characteristics of metal-bearing particulate matter in the inhalable size fraction. The results indicate the dominant atmospheric parameter controlling dust transport in a semiarid region with variable topography is low relative humidity ≤35% due to the effect on soil moisture and the subsequent prevention of the formation of aggregate particles that are more difficult to entrain by wind. Local meteorological stations are compared to regional climate models and prove to be significantly more accurate for wind data, highlighting the importance of maintaining the local stations for future analyses. Concentrations of toxic metals U, Pb, As, Cu, Zn, Cd, Mo, and Co are enriched in particulate matter samples relative to crustal average values. Standards associated with inhalation of toxic metals in airborne particulate matter do not currently exist; an indirect comparison to OSHA worker standards is observed in this research but does not provide information for potential health risks. Microscopy analyses revealed the presence of uranyl vanadate and uranyl arsenate minerals in the inhalable size fraction as well as coarser size fractions, many of which appear to be susceptible to erosion and fragmentation during windblown transport. Based on this information, inhalation of airborne particulate matter has been found to be a potential exposure pathway for the local tribal communities at Laguna Pueblo.

Degree Name

Earth and Planetary Sciences

Level of Degree


Department Name

Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

First Committee Member (Chair)

Dr. Joseph Galewsky

Second Committee Member

Dr. Adrian Brearley

Third Committee Member

Dr. Louis Scuderi

Project Sponsors

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences




Jackpile Mine, Pueblo of Laguna, toxic metal mixtures, uranium, particulate matter, exposure risk

Document Type