We need heroes. We certainly need environmental health heroes, the Tar Creek Superfund Site has some, and we deserve more. I was telling one such story to a woman at the Ottawa County Free Fair this week, and with the fans pushing hot air around the building, to tell a story, a person raises her voice. And that is what I caught myself doing while telling this one.
It is an important story how actions taken by the Indian Health Services brought 300 million dollars to Ottawa County and one of those responsible never knew it happened, never claimed his fame.
Don was working for Indian Health Services in the 1990's when I got to know him. He dealt with helping tribal families get access to potable water, either from a well or from rural water districts, served as the safety officer for the facility and made sure tribal nutrition centers were food safe.
Working 9 to 5 in the years before the internet, to earn his Masters Degree in Public Health, he jumped on the turnpike after work to make the evening classes held in Tulsa by the University of Oklahoma. In order to finish his degree he had to produce a thesis, which required research and the libraries he could use were closed the hours of his day he had available.
Surveillance of data for trends could have described one of the duties he took on near the end of his stay in Miami, OK. It was there that he discovered a trend that concerned him, that of lead poisoning of our tribal children, discovering over a third were lead poisoned.
I cannot tell you how often I told this to high school and college students in the years since knowing Don, but he may have done something major to help protect the children in Ottawa County from lead poisoning, but he has inspired countless students to find the ways to do their research, continue their education, just by learning that his very own research could impact such important change. But it wasn’t just the research project, or presenting it, that made Don’s efforts so memorable to me, it was the next step, it was what he did with it. He passed on what he learned to the authorities who for whatever God Blessed reason, took their next step, to confirm his data, and then begin the long process to make the children in Ottawa County safer for the future.
But just as the last steps of this story are important and most significant, they could not have happened without the earlier part of the story. Let us begin with a simple conversation between a nurse and the new woman doctor who worked, at our “Indian Clinic.” The doctor wondered out-loud to her nurse why so many parents were requesting a drug known at that time to help with the symptoms of hyperactivity or Attention Deficit Disorder for their school-aged children. The nurse had read the latest research on lead poisoning suggesting children could have been lead poisoned since lead was being linked to those symptoms. The doctor had been taught in medical school lead poisoning frequently occurred in inner cities due to lead-based paint in deteriorated housing units. How could that be possible here on the plains in small towns? The nurse explained the proximity we are to then abandoned lead and zinc mining district. With that understanding, the doctor ordered all children since to have their blood tested for lead. And all the results were placed in their charts.
And that is where Don Ackerman found those surprising numbers he later reported to the then EPA Region 6 Administrator.
And where the story could have ended, another story began, EPA assessed the possibility the Indian Health Service "underlying" might be on to something. And he was. Not just Indian children but all kinds of children were lead poisoned. EPA’s immediate actions began in 1995 to begin removing the lead and zinc from places children played and the work continues now for places children play, their own yards. Throughout the county, all are eligible to have their yards tested for lead and to have it removed at no cost and replaced with the soil those children could both play and raise a garden of their own.
There are some powerful stories in the history of the county. But you might not have known this one. But you have heard the myth-building story. You can hear Don Ackerman tell his own at the 21st National Environmental Conference at Tar Creek September 17-18. The other thing about Don, he is a poet, and you can be, too. Be sure to come for our Poetry Slam on Sept. 16th at 7 pm in the Ballroom at NEO. The other thing you might get to see happen, Don gets to meet the new EPA Region 6 Administrator, who will be attending the conference.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim