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Surviving toxic environment

People living near Jadugoda uranium mines die younger as compromised safety standards pose serious health hazards.

Surviving toxic environment

A study on the health status of people living near the Jadugoda uranium mining operation area confirms that health problems related to uranium mining, such as congenital deformities, sterility and cancer, were affecting the indigenous people disproportionately in the studied villages as compared to the reference villages. The study also suggests that increasing numbers of people living near the uranium mining operational area are dying at a younger age (before completing 62 years) as compared to the reference villages. The health of indigenous people around uranium mining areas is more vulnerable to danger, in spite of the fact that their economic and educational status is better placed.

There have been reports in the past indicating that people living near the Jadugoda mines are facing radiation problems. An environment committee of the Bihar legislative council, headed by Gautam Sagar Rana, had pointed out in its report towards the health hazards which miners working in the uranium mines and the tribals (residing close to the tailings ponds used for dumping of nuclear wastes) are exposed to. Another study by Sanghamitra has also concluded that indigenous people residing in the vicinity of the uranium mines are victims of radiation.
The safety standards maintained by the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) authorities can be gauged by an incident, which happened on December 24, 2006, when thousands of litres of radioactive waste spilt in a creek because of a pipe burst at a UCIL facility in Jadugoda. It is disquieting that UCIL did not have its own alarm mechanism to alert the company during cases of such a disaster. But for the vigilance of the villagers, who had arrived at the scene of the accident soon after the pipe burst, UCIL would not have come to know about the toxic spill. UCIL took nine hours before the flow of the radioactive waste that had spewed into the creek was shut off. Consequently, a thick layer of toxic sludge on the surface of the creek killed scores of fish, frogs, and other riparian life. The waste from the leak also reached a creek that feeds into the Subarnarekha river, seriously contaminating the water resources of the communities living hundreds of kilometres along the way. This is not the first instance of such an accident. In 1986, a tailing dam had burst open and radioactive water flowed directly into the villages.
Till the 90's, the tailings ponds (where uranium mine liquid waste is stored to evaporate) in close vicinity of the villages were used as children's playground, open grazing area and for other public use. It indicates the utter disregard they have for the safety of the indigenous people. The As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) principle has been thrown to the winds by the UCIL authorities.
The finding of the study confirms the hypotheses that the health of indigenous people around uranium mining is more vulnerable to certain health problems. The major finding of the study shows that:
Primary sterility is more common among people residing near uranium mining operations area.
More children with congenital deformities are being born to mothers and congenital defect as a cause of the death of a child is also high among mothers living near uranium mining operations area.
Cancer as a cause of death is more common in villages surrounding uranium operations.
The life expectancy of people living near uranium mining operations area is less; as a result, more people are dying at early ages in villages around the uranium mining operation areas.
The health of indigenous people around uranium mining areas is more vulnerable, in spite of the fact that their economic and educational status is better as compared to the reference villages.
Nuclear issues in India are the sacrosanct holy cow. It has been kept out of the purview of the ordinary citizen. A nuclear India has been developed to become a symbol of national pride by successive Indian governments. Anybody raising the issue of nuclear safety is either ridiculed or branded as an anti-national. There should be epidemiological study around the nuclear facilities to check the health of the people living in the vicinity of such areas, before installing a facility. It should be followed up every year to study the effect on the health status of the people. In addition to radiation hazards, the chemical hazards of uranium also demand a closer scrutiny.
Exhilaration about nuclear power plants cannot cloak the miseries of the thousands of indigenous people suffering from the effects of uranium mining in India, due to poor technical and management practices in the Ines. The Uranium Corporation of India Limited and the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India, have a committed duty towards the indigenous people of Jadugoda, to provide all information on radiation and chemical hazards affecting them.
(Dr Arun Mitra is ENT specialist based in Ludhiana. He is Senior Vice-President of Indian Doctors for Peace and Development Views are personal.)

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