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Health Impacts for Uranium Mine and Mill Residents - Science Issues

(last updated 1 Nov 2010)

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Study finds decreases in white blood cell counts and alterations in systolic blood pressure among residents in the vicinity of the former Fernald uranium processing plant (Ohio)

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Study: Increased likelihood of kidney disease and diabetes among people who live close to abandoned uranium mines (New Mexico)

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Survey finds excess deformities and cancer near Jadugoda uranium mine (Jharkhand, India)

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New study confirms toxicity of uranium in drinking water

In a recent study on humans, toxic effects of uranium in drinking water on the kidney were found even for low concentrations - without a clear threshold. View details.


Increase in leukemia, lung and renal cancers around Spanish uranium mills

An excess risk of leukemia mortality was observed in the vicinity of uranium mills in Spain: A statistically significant 30% increase for the Andújar mill and, on the borderline of statistical significance, an 68% increase for the Ciudad Rodrigo mill. No excess leukemia risk was observed around the experimental Lobo-G mill at La Haba (Badajoz).

radiusrelative risk95% confidence interval
Andújar0 - 30 km1.301.03 - 1.64
Ciudad Rodrigo0 - 15 km1.680.92 - 3.08

The relative risk compares the risk in the study areas versus reference areas. For reference (control), towns lying within a radius of 50 - 100 km were taken.

For none of the facilities, a pattern indicating a statistically significant rise in risk with proximity to the facility could be found.
For Ciudad Rodrigo and La Haba, data from the time before the commissioning of the facilities was available and allowed to study the start-up effect. The available data showed no significant rise in mortality with the startup of these facilities.
The influence of natural radiation on mortality could not be incorporated into the analysis. However, the Andújar and Ciudad Rodrigo facilities are located in parts of the country with high levels of natural radiation.

Gonzalo López-Abente, Nuria Aragonés, Marina Pollán, María Ruiz, and Ana Gandarillas: Leukemia, Lymphomas, and Myeloma Mortality in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants and Nuclear Fuel Facilities in Spain. in: Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention Vol. 8, p. 925-934, Oct. 1999, ISSN 1055-9965

In another paper, the same authors report excess lung [relative risk (RR) 1.12, 95% confidence interval (CI), 1.02-1.25] and renal cancer mortality (RR 1.37, 95% CI, 1.07-1.76) around the uranium mills.

Gonzalo López-Abente, Nuria Aragonés, and Marina Pollán: Solid-Tumor Mortality in the Vicinity of Uranium Cycle Facilities and Nuclear Power Plants in Spain external link, Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 109, Number 7, July 2001, p. 721-729

At Andújar (Jaén), a uranium mill was in operation from 1959 to 1981. The plant produced 1350 tonnes of U3O8 (1145 t U) and left behind around 1 million m3 of mill tailings.
At Saelices el Chico near Ciudad Rodrigo (Salamanca), the Elefante uranium mill was in operation between 1973 and 1993. Then, this plant was replaced by the new Quercus plant which is scheduled to operate until 2001. During its lifetime, the Elefante plant produced a total of 3430 tonnes of U3O8 (2909 t U), leaving behind 7.15 million tonnes of heap leaching wastes and 372,000 m3 of mill tailings. [IAEA-TECDOC-982 (1997), IAEA-TECDOC-824 (1995)]


New study on toxicity of uranium in drinking water

For the first time, a study on the effects of chronic ingestion of uranium with drinking water on humans is available. It finds that kidney function is affected by levels of uranium uptake previously considered safe. View details.


Chromosome aberrations with residents of uranium mining area

An investigation of residents of Karnes County, Texas, showed the following results:
"We found that individuals who resided near uranium mining operations had a higher mean frequency of cells with chromosome aberrations and higher deletion frequency but lower dicentric frequency than the reference group, although the difference was not statistically significant. After cells were challenged by exposure to gamma-rays, the target population had a significantly higher frequency of cells with chromosome aberrations and deletion frequency than the reference group. The latter observation is indicative of abnormal DNA repair response in the target population."

References

Au, W W; Lane, R G; Legator,M S; et al.: Biomarker Monitoring of a Population Residing near Uranium Mining Activities, in: Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 103, No.5, May 1995, p.466-470


Increase in birth defects from mothers living near uranium tailings

An investigation performed at the Shiprock, New Mexico, uranium mine showed that babies from mothers who lived near the tailings dump, suffered a significant increase in birth defects by a factor of 1.83. Since no dependency on the duration of exposure prior to birth could be found, the result is seen by the authors with caution, though statistically significant.

References

Shields,L M; Wiese,W H; Skipper,B J; et al.: Navajo birth outcomes in the Shiprock uranium mining area, in: Health Physics Vol.63, No.5, Nov.1992, p.542-551


Health hazard from radon for residents of uranium mining areas

No epidemiological studies on residents of mining areas have been completed so far. Only some studies on the risk presented by radon in homes have been performed worldwide - with inconsistent results [Stidley1993]. An analysis of ongoing epidemiological studies on health effects from radon in homes found many methodological drawbacks with the design of these studies, especially unsufficient sample size [Neuberger1992]. A first analysis of health data in the German uranium mining area showed a significantly increased lung cancer incidence for men in several cities, which is attributed to occupational exposure. But in Schneeberg and Schlema, an increased lung cancer risk was also found for women [Heinemann1992, p.55]. A detailed study on lung cancer risk in dwellings in Thuringia and Saxony is now being undertaken [Heinrich1992].

Estimates made by U.S.EPA for an individual living next to some of the inactive tailings piles in the US showed a lifetime excess lung cancer risk of 40 chances in 1000 [EPA1983a]. Since the radon gas released from the tailings piles is dispersed over large areas, many people receive small additional radiation doses. Though the increase of the individual risk is rather small, the total number of fatalities can not be neglected: U.S.EPA estimated for the United States that without remediation, the radon released from all inactive sites could cause 170 to 240 potential excess lung cancer deaths per century [EPA1983a], while all tailings in existence at licensed sites in 1983 would cause about 500 lung cancer deaths per century [EPA1983b].

A first assessment of lung cancer risk for the residents of the East German uranium mining area was performed by Ökoinstitut [Küppers1994]. For the Thuringian uranium mining district, Ökoinstitut calculated an excess lifetime lung cancer risk of 15 in 1000 for residents of the Southern part of Ronneburg, where an 80 Bq/m3 increase of radon concentration in air can be attributed to Wismut's activities. The dispersion of the radon gas released from the Ronneburg mining district leads to an excess lung cancer incidence of 6 cases per year within a radius of 400 km from the mines.

Misuse of tailings for construction purposes was widely practiced in uranium mining areas in the US. Tailings were used for foundations of homes and other purposes. High indoor radon exposures result from this practice. U.S.EPA estimates for residents living in such homes ("vicinity properties") showed an excess lifetime lung cancer risk of greater than 40 chances in 1000 for 50% of the homes sampled in Grand Junction, Colorado [EPA1983a].
In Eastern Siberia, tailings sands from a uranium mine at Baley (Chita region) were used for the construction of apartment buildings and kindergardens. Radon concentrations in these buildings exceed the 200 Bq/m3 standard up to 37-fold. For details see For Life in Baley external link, December 1995 Supplement to Baikal Currents (Baikal Center for Ecological and Citizen Initiatives, Irkutsk, and Baikal Watch, Earth Island Institute, San Francisco).
No investigations have been performed so far, whether such misuse has happened also in the East German uranium mining district. Ökoinstitut calculates radon levels in homes of 260 Bq/m3 from supposed misuse of Crossen waste rock material with radium-226 concentrations of 1 Bq/g for construction purposes. This radon level corresponds to nearly the same excess lifetime lung cancer risk of 39 chances in 1000. [Küppers1994, p.58-59]

> See also: Nuclear Fuel Population Health Risk Calculator

References:

[EPA1983a] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 40 CFR Part 192 Standards for Remedial Actions at Inactive Uranium Processing Sites. In: Federal Register Vol.48, No.3, Washington, D.C., January 5, 1983, p.590-604.

[EPA1983b] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: 40 CFR Part 192 Environmental Standards for Uranium and Thorium Mill Tailings at Licensed Commercial Processing Sites. In: Federal Register Vol.48, No.196, Washington D.C., October 7, 1983, p.45926-45947.

[Heinemann1992] Heinemann,L et al.: Gesundheitsrisiken durch Strahlenexposition in den Südbezirken der ehemaligen DDR. BMU-1992-354, 1992, 144 p.

[Heinrich1992] Heinrich,J et al.: Lungenkrebsrisiko durch Radon in Wohnräumen - eine Fall-Kontroll-Studie in Thüringen und Sachsen. In: Forum Städte-Hygiene 43(1992) März/April p. 95-97

[Küppers1994] Küppers,Christian; Schmidt,Gerhard: Strahlenschutzaspekte bei Altlasten des Uranbergbaus in Thüringen und Sachsen, Öko-Institut, Werkstattreihe Nr.86, Darmstadt, 1994, 82 p.

[Neuberger1992] Neuberger,J.S.: Residential Radon exposure and lung cancer: An overview of ongoing studies. in: Health Physics 63 (1992) 5, p.503-509

[Stidley1993] Stidley,C.A.; Samet,J.M.: A review of ecologic studies of lung cancer and indoor radon. in: Health Physics 65 (1993) 3, p.234-251

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