Saturday, December 15, 2007

Udall: Navajo ‘cancer-free’ before uranium

Everytt Begay walks past a row of signs leaning against a fence that keeps people out of the proposed mining site in Crownpoint. More than 30 protestors showed up at the site to voice their concerns to officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Hydro Resources Incorporated. [Photo by Brian Leddy/Independent]

By Kathy Helms
Diné Bureau

WINDOW ROCK — The good news is that Navajo cancer rates are below the national average. The bad news is that there essentially was no cancer on the Navajo Nation before uranium mining, Rep. Tom Udall said.

About 250,000 Navajos are served by Indian Health Service, according to Dr. Douglas Peter, director for Navajo Indian Health Service, including former uranium workers, downwinders, and those that live near abandoned mines.

“We live with them, we work with them, and we’re there to provide the best health care we can to them,” Peter told a group of congressional leaders last week during a Uranium Roundtable conducted by Tom Udall, D-N.M., in Washington.

“There’s a lot known about the health effects” from uranium, Peter said, including published studies from post-Chernobyl, post-Three Mile Island, Hiroshima, and historical studies in the United States. Yet, scientific studies unique to Navajo to discover overall effects “would be difficult because the numbers are not sufficient enough to draw conclusions,” he said.

While Navajo cancer rates are all below the U.S. rate overall, “I believe Navajo rates of lung cancer would be essentially zero without the history of uranium mining,” he said.

Udall, whose father brought the original legal cases that connected radon and lung cancer, told Peter, “One of the most powerful arguments the lawyers had in court was the Navajo population was basically a cancer-free population.

While the increase in Navajo cancer is still below the national average, Udall said, “that increase is due to outside forces on the Navajo Reservation. That’s important for us to understand. ... They were a cancer-free population until they came into contact with the industrial forces of our society.”

Peter agreed, saying, “Obviously the presence of smoking among Navajos is far lower than the U.S. population. As I stated, there would be essentially no lung cancer had there not been uranium mining among Navajos at this point in time, given what we know of the history from then till present. I won’t get into the other types of cancer.”

He said he concurred with recent testimony on the health effects among Navajo provided by Dr. Doug Brugge at an Oversight and Government Reform hearing chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman. “There remains much to be examined in concert with other federal agencies and working with the Nation,” Peter said.

“You can look at those living within a certain number of miles of waste sites, or more specific, you can look at all of those who may have ingested unregulated water, but then you have to determine the amount of ingestion. Those who live within certain miles of former milling sites, those living within certain miles of the 1,300 abandoned mine sites, they’re potential candidates for studies,” Peter said.

According to Brugge, associate professor in the department of public health and family medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine, “There has been too little research on the health impacts of uranium mining in Navajo communities.”

The one study under way, conducted by Dr. Johnnye Lewis of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, will mostly address kidney disease and not birth defects or cancer, Brugge said.

“I am deeply saddened by the fact that so little has been accomplished over those decades to eliminate the health hazards faced by the enormous quantities of uranium waste on the Navajo reservation.

“Clearly, uranium ore is a toxic brew of numerous nasty hazardous materials. Uranium, itself highly toxic, gives rise to a series of other radioactive decay elements that are found in raw, natural ore. Most significant among these are radium and thorium, both of which are highly radioactive,” Brugge said.

During testimony before Waxman’s committee, Brugge said that when radium decays it produces radon gas, a potent toxicant. “Because it is a gas that becomes airborne, when radon decays it transforms into a series of highly radioactive ‘radon daughters’ that can lodge in the lungs.”

The primary heavy metal toxicants in uranium ore include uranium itself and arsenic, as well as vanadium and manganese. During the first phase of processing uranium, most of the uranium is removed, leaving behind mill tailings which retain most of the other toxic contaminants from the ore, he said.

The milling of uranium is an industrial process that involves crushing and grinding of the rock and the addition of acids and organic solvents to facilitate concentration and removal of the uranium. “Hence, uranium mill tailings and mill tailings effluent are not only highly radioactive, but they are acutely hazardous,” he said.

The health effects of uranium and its associated radioactive decay products and heavy metals that rise to the level of proven or near-proven causal links include:

* Radon, which causes lung cancer, “and in fact, it is the primary source of lung cancer among Navajo uranium miners,” Brugge said.
* Uranium, which as a heavy metal causes damage to the kidneys and birth defects;
* Radium, which causes bone cancer, cancer of the nasal sinuses and mastoid air cells and leukemia; and
* Arsenic, which causes lung and skin cancer, as well as neurotoxicity, hyperpigmentation and hyperkeratosis of the skin.

“There may also be many other negative health effects from exposure to uranium and its byproducts. In short, there is a clear causal link between uranium exposure and human health. The Navajos continually exposed to uranium and its byproducts even today face grave threats to their health,” Brugge said.

He also referred to the tailings spill in the Navajo community of Churchrock, saying it remains the largest industrial release of radioactive wastes in the history of the United States.

“In 1979, only months after the Three Mile Island release, a dam holding back a tailings lagoon maintained by United Nuclear Corporation failed, sending 94 million gallons of radioactive and acidic wastewater and 1,100 tons of toxic and radioactive mill waste into the Puerco River.

“This release, which was substantially larger than the release at TMI, flowed into a low-income, largely Native American community. This incident has been virtually ignored in the press and scientific literature.

“For the people in Churchrock and other Navajo communities contaminated for decades with uranium ore tailings there are no ‘good’ options, too much harm has already been done. But there are ways that we can gradually make things better so that maybe the children and the grandchildren of the Navajo uranium miners are not still grappling with this toxic legacy,” Brugge said.

A good start would be to provide sufficient resources to secure or remove contamination at these hazardous waste sites and to do so in a manner that prevents additional exposure to nearby residents.

“Congress must fund the Navajo Nation and federal health agencies to provide resources for health studies among the tens of thousands of Navajo community members who still live next to abandoned mines and/or who were exposed to uranium from the contaminated dusts brought home by their working relatives.

“As terrible as the health effects that we know arise from toxins in uranium tailings, there are almost certainly additional ways that the health of Navajo people living near uranium mill and mine waste has been affected. If we are to understand the full extent of this injustice, we will also need additional health studies,” he said.

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