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Assessing the health impacts of increased urban sprawl in Beaufort County, SC due to water contamination

St. Helena Island, South Carolina

Featured image for the project, Assessing the health impacts of increased urban sprawl in Beaufort County, SC due to water contamination

Description

The Community and the Challenge

St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, SC is a rural Sea Island with a predominantly Gullah/Geechee population that is still reliant upon the waters that surround the island for subsistence. The Gullah/Geechee people are a unique national ethnic group that lives along the Intercoastal Waterway of the southeast. There are approximately 1 million people of Gullah/Geechee ancestry located between Jacksonville, NC and Jacksonville, FL on the Sea Island chain and within what is referred to as the “Carolina Lowcountry.” St. Helena Island, SC which is one of the largest Sea Islands, has one of the largest contiguous Gullah/Geechee communities that still practice the traditions of their ancestors. Approximately 10,000 people inhabit St. Helena Island off the coast of Beaufort, SC. The island is considered by many to be the epicenter of Gullah/Geechee life both historically and in the present day. St. Helena Island has a Cultural Protection Overlay (CPO) District that is part of the zoning plan for Beaufort County. The CPO was put in place specifically to protect Gullah/Geechee culture.

The isolation of the Sea Islands, which continued until the early 20th century, allowed Gullah/Geechee descendants to maintain many of their African traditions. It also allowed this group to develop as a distinct community with its own language and culture (US NPS 2011). For more than a century, the Gullah/Geechee have lived in balance and harmony with the land and waterways as a natural continuum of their African and indigenous American traditions passed down by their ancestors. That balance has been disrupted, however, as urban sprawl spreads across the region, consuming natural habitats, intensifying land uses, and proliferating impervious surfaces that increase stormwater runoff. 

 

The Project

Ascertaining the water quality in our communities is an urgent priority. Many Gullah/Geechee households depend on fish, shellfish, and other coastal resources for their livelihoods, through small-scale commercial endeavors and through direct consumption of these resources (Ellis, 2013). Research suggests that rates of Gullah/Geechee local fish consumption potentially expose this segment of the population to higher levels of the neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg) (Kamen et al. 2012, Ellis, 2013, Ellis et al. 2014). This project will provide Gullah/Geechee people with essential information to avoid exposure to harmful toxins, capture the local environmental knowledge of the Gullah/Geechee people, and ensure the continuity of their sustainable livelihood practices.

The economies and cultures that rely upon healthy coastal waters are being threatened by growing levels of pollution coming from the effects of particular forms of development and the increase in impermeable surfaces that allow pollutants to run off into the sea. A study of sediment samples from the ACE Basin in which the Salkehatchie watershed (Beaufort County) is located indicates levels of arsenic and other trace metals, pesticides, and PAHs that account for 73.5%, 16.1%, and 10.4%, respectively, of total cumulative risk (Scott et al. 1998). At the time of this study, the mean total cumulative risk estimate for all contaminants was less than 50% of cumulative levels of contamination projected to cause simple additive toxicity (Scott et al. 1998). The ACE Basin sediment contamination survey conducted by Scott et al. (1998) will serve as a baseline to measure the impact of subsequent anthropogenic activities (NOAA, 1998). Scott et al. 1998 suggested that increasing urbanization in Beaufort County would potentially increase levels of accumulated pollution in sediments (Scott et al. 1998). This project will examine the increased urban sprawl in Beaufort County and its potential health risks to the Gullah/Geechee population because they are “subsistence” users of the Salkehatchie watershed.

Scientist Wanted

Ascertaining the water quality in our communities is an urgent priority. Many Gullah/Geechee households depend on fish, shellfish, and other coastal resources for their livelihoods, through small-scale commercial endeavors and through direct consumption of these resources (Ellis, 2013). Research suggests that rates of Gullah/Geechee local fish consumption potentially exposes this segment of the population to higher levels of the neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg) (Kamen et al. 2012, Ellis, 2013, Ellis et al. 2014). This project will provide Gullah/Geechee people with essential information to avoid exposure to harmful toxins, capture the local environmental knowledge of the Gullah/Geechee people, and ensure the continuity of their sustainable livelihood practices.

1)     The Gullah/Geechee Nation is seeking an expert who will work with the leadership to identify the best tools to detect neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg) in the waterways in our communities. The scientists may work virtually to meet, discuss and provide recommendations.

2)     The Gullah/Geechee Nation is seeking an expert to provide training to the leadership on how to use the MeHg water testing tools and the best data-collection practices. This training can be done virtually. However, ideally, the scientist(s) will host at least one collection, testing, and data training on-site at a location within the Gullah/Geechee Nation (Jacksonville, NC to Jacksonville, FL about 40 miles inland).

The community prefers a scientific partner who is Gullah/Geechee or is familiar with Gullah/Geechee culture and traditions. The community is open to any scientific partner who is culturally sensitive and has any connection to the Lowcountry.

 

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact to which they can contribute as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

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Media

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