Radiation in uranium mines
People working in nuclear power plants face considerable health hazards.
Nuclear energy is being projected as the panacea for the energy crisis in our country. It is true that we have acute shortage of electricity which is so essential for development. But there has been debate around the globe whether nuclear energy is the answer. There is evidence to prove that It is fraught with dangers right from digging of its ore - the uranium, to its transport to the nuclear power plants, hazards involved in its utilisation in nuclear facilities and lastly its waste management. There have been many accidents worldwide in the nuclear facilities which have been of extremely serious nature. The Three Mile island accident in 1979, the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. In India, too, several low-level accidents have occurred but they have gone unreported because there is no transparency in the nuclear energy industry and it is not covered under the RTI act.
A large number of workers are involved at every step of nuclear energy. Since nuclear energy is directly linked to radiations, it is important to examine if the workers or their families living in and around these facilities have any associated health problems. The Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD) had conducted a study on the health status of indigenous people around Jadugoda uranium mines situated in Jharkhand. The study was conducted under the leadership of Dr Shakeel Ur Rahman, who at present the General Secretary of IDPD.
All mining operations have related occupational health and safety hazards. Uranium mines present another hazard to workers and to members of the public. That is a radiation hazard. There are three types of exposure paths in the surrounding of uranium mine.
4Uranium mining and milling operations produce dust and gas (radon) having radioisotopes that are inhaled by miners and deliver internal radiation.
4Through the ingestion of uranium series radioisotopes, transported in surface waters discharged from the mine delivering an internal radiation.
4The gamma-ray exposure by approaching tailing ponds or mine-tailings.
The population living around the Jadugoda uranium mines was found to be suffering from following health effects:
Congenital Deformities: The investigation showed that babies from mothers, who lived near the uranium mining operation area, suffered a significant increase in congenital deformities. While 4.49 per cent mothers living in the study villages reported that children with congenital deformities were born to them, only 2.49 per cent mothers in reference villages fell under this category.
The study when seen in this background reveals that people with disabilities in the study villages are significantly more than the all India average.
Moreover, increased number of children in the study villages are dying due to congenital deformities. Out of mothers who have lost their children after birth, 9.25 per cent in the study villages reported congenital deformities as the cause of death of their children as compared to only 1.70 per cent mothers in the reference villages. The result shows that children born to mothers who lived near uranium mining operational area are more likely to die due to congenital deformities.
Primary Sterility: For the study purpose, the criteria of primary sterility were laid down to be a married couple not having conceived for at least three years after the marriage, and not using any method of contraception. The result shows that while 9.60 per cent of couples in study villages have not conceived even after three years of marriage, only 6.27 per cent of couples from reference villages fell under this category. The finding demonstrates that couples living near uranium mining operational area are approximately 1.58 times more vulnerable to primary sterility.
Cancer: On being asked the cause of last death in the household, 2.87 per cent households in the study villages attributed the cause of death to be cancer, whereas, 1.89 per cent households in reference village fell under this category. The study reveals that cancer as a cause of death among people living near uranium mining operational area is significantly high.
Life Expectancy: The study shows that increased numbers of people living near uranium mining operational area are dying before completing 62 years of age. The average life expectancy in the state of Jharkhand is 62 years. The study shows that 68.33 per cent the of deaths in the study villages were happening before attaining 62 years of age, whereas 53.94 per cent deaths were reported in reference villages under this category. The findings are discerning and the difference is significant.
Other variables: The study tried to look at a few other health variables as well, like prevalence of spontaneous abortion among married women, stillbirths, and chronic lung diseases. The prevalence of all these health variables was definitely more in the study villages as compared to reference village, but the results were statistically not significant.
(Dr. Arun Mitra is a leading ENT specialist based in Ludhiana. He is the Senior Vice-President of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development (IDPD) and is presently a member of the core committee of Alliance of Doctors for Ethical Health care in India. Views expressed are personal.)