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Native American artifacts pose pesticide exposure risk

An analysis of museum artifacts returned to California's Hoopa tribe through a federal repatriation act reveals traces of mercury and various pesticides, including DDT. Such chemicals commonly applied in the past by museums to defend their collections against pests could pose a risk to tribal members who may wear the objects during religious ceremonies, as well as to museum workers who handle the artifacts.

Of the 17 artifacts studied, seven had a mercury level of more than 1 percent by weight, and one object had a level of more than 16 percent. Naphthalene and DDT were also found frequently throughout the samples.

The research is reported in the March 15 print edition of Environmental Science & Technology, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 allows federally recognized tribes to request that museums return objects taken from their ancestors.

"Many Native Americans are now requesting that objects be returned to them under NAGPRA, and it is highly likely that these objects will be returned without any prior testing," says Peter Palmer, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at San Francisco State University and lead author of the paper.

Determining the potential threat to human health is a complicated issue, Palmer acknowledges. "We don't know the risks, we don't know the exposures, and hence more work needs to be done." There is currently no straightforward method to decontaminate the objects without damaging them, so until more study is done, Palmer suggests that the artifacts not be worn.

Museums have long used chemicals to protect valuable objects from rodents, insects and microorganisms. The earliest agents were various forms of arsenic and mercury salts, but as technology evolved, curators began using organic pesticides like DDT. Over the years, some pieces may have been trea
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Contact: Beverly Hassell
b_hassell@acs.org
202-872-4065
American Chemical Society
19-Mar-2003


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