Uranium Mining

McArthur River Project Aerial Photo

The McArthur River Uranium Mine, in northern Saskatchewan, Canada, is the world’s largest high-grade uranium deposit. CC BY-SA 3.0

The Question

What research is being done to monitor the contaminants generated by the uranium mining industry in Northern Saskatchewan? What are the known effects of these contaminants on human health?

The Background

Monitoring and assessing the environmental health impacts from uranium mining poses unique challenges for regulators and policy makers because of the chemical and radioactive toxicity of the materials these mines generate. In addition to uranium, these mines can produce radon, radium, arsenic, lead, nickel and molybdenum. Ongoing research has indicated that exposure to these contaminants, even in small amounts, can adversely and irreversibly affect health (Kuziak et al 1993Taeger et al 2009). These studies show that exposures to low level, ionizing radiation, including radon, and the ingestion of uranium, increase the likelihood of cancers, and cardiovascular and kidney disease (e.g. Zamora et al., 1998, Rage et al 2014, Keil et al 2015).

Currently, there are nine uranium mines in various stages of development and operation in Northern Saskatchewan. This number will most likely increase, as earlier this year the Canadian government signed new trade deals to increase the export of uranium internationally. The government insists these efforts will benefit Canadians. However, there are thirty-two Aboriginal and Northern communities whose traditional hunting and fishing territories intersect with the boundaries of this mining region. The environmental health hazards of these mines to those who live in the surrounding area and who hunt, fish, and trap animals there remain understudied and the risks remain unclear.

There has yet to be a comprehensive baseline community health study of the effects of uranium mining on the individuals living in the surrounding area (see, for example, Dewar et al., 2013). Furthermore,  the provincial Cumulative Effects Monitoring (CEM) program that measures the environmental impacts of multiple uranium ended in 2008, and has yet to be reinstated. What research is the federal government doing to ensure the health and safety of those who live in the region?

Your Letter to the Director of the Radiological Impact Section

Dear Dr Jing Chen, Director, Radiological Impact Section, Health Canada,

Thank you for your research monitoring the human health impacts of exposure to radiological material. As a research scientist and the Director of Radiological Impact Section, Health Canada, I am sure you are aware of the numerous studies outlining the potential adverse health risks, such as an increase in the likelihood of cancers, associated with frequent exposure to radon and low doses of ionizing radiation (e.g. The National Academies, 2002). In a study measuring the levels of toxicity loads in northern caribou populations who graze near the mines, a group of scientists found significantly enhanced levels of radionuclides in their bodies compared to other caribou populations, making those who consume the caribou at risk for increased exposure (Thomas and Gates, 1999). A more recent case study of the uranium waste rock piles at Key Lake mine showed the potential for long-term surface and groundwater contamination, which could directly impact the communities who hunt, fish, trap, collect berries and medicine in the area (Singh and Hendry, 2013).

These findings suggest a need to continually monitor and assess the environmental health impacts from uranium mining in Northern Saskatchewan, particularly over the long term and at the community level. Based on your expertise, we would like to know:

  • Is there a comprehensive plan in place to study and monitor the health impacts for the communities whose traditional hunting and fishing grounds intersect with the boundaries of the mines and exploratory sites?
  • What research is being done to monitor the contaminants generated by the uranium mining?
  • What are the known effects of these contaminants on human health?
  • What are the findings of epidemiological studies conducted among community members who live near the uranium mines?
  • If such studies have not been conducted, why not?

We believe that the thirty-two northern communities directly impacted by uranium extraction deserve to have accurate and reliable information on matters foundational to their long term health and well being. We are concerned that this lack of clear information is part of a broader trend in Canada that leaves northern and Aboriginal communities under-serviced when it comes to providing the health care and information they need make decisions about the well-being of their families and communities. These gaps need to be addressed by Health Canada.

I am writing this email as part of Write2Know (http://write2know.ca), a letter-writing campaign that aims to mobilize public awareness and inquiry into federal research programs. We want to let you know that we value federal science and scientists, and that our questions arise out of genuine concerns about the health and well-being of Canadians.

We remain concerned about the legacy of constraints on access to federal scientists and the results of their research, the elimination of essential research programs, and the closure of libraries and archives. These constraints and closures have impacted what Canadians can and cannot know about the health of their bodies, communities, and environments. We are hopeful that a new government will address our concerns.

We are posing questions to federal scientists about their research and findings, and forwarding our letters to federal Ministers and Members of Parliament to call attention to serious gaps between scientific evidence and government policy.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

cc

Patsy Thompson, Director General of Environmental and Radiation Protection and Assessment Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission
Hon. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs
Hon. Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Hon. Jim Carr, Minister of Natural Resources
Hon. Jane Philpott, Minister of Health
Hon. Hunter Tootoo, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard
Hon. Kristy Duncan, Minister of Science
Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development

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More Information

Dewar, L. Harvey, and C. Vakil, “Uranium Mining and Health.” Canadian Family Physician 59.5 (2013): 469-71.

 Jing, J. Huixia, T. Bliss, and J. Zielinski, “A Preliminary Radon Map for Canada According to Health Region.” Radon Protection Dosimetry 130.1 (2008): 1-3.

Keil, A. P., Richardson, D. B., & Troester, M. A. (2015). Healthy Worker Survivor Bias in the Colorado Plateau Uranium Miners Cohort. American journal of epidemiology, kwu348.

Kusiak, R. A., Ritchie, A. C., Muller, J., & Springer, J. (1993). Mortality from lung cancer in Ontario uranium miners. British journal of industrial medicine, 50(10), 920-928.

Limson, B.L. Tracy, J.M. Zielinski, D.P. Meyerhof, M.A. Moss. (1998) “Chronic Ingestion of Uranium in Drinking Water: A Study of Kidney Bioeffects in Humans.” Toxicologic Science 43(1), 68-77.

The National Research Council (2002) “Health Risks From Exposure to Low Level Ionizing Radiation,” The National Academies.

Rage, E., Caër-Lorho, S., Drubay, D., Ancelet, S., Laroche, P., & Laurier, D. (2014). Mortality analyses in the updated French cohort of uranium miners (1946–2007). International archives of occupational and environmental health, 1-14.

S.P. Singh, and J. Hendry, 2013. “Solid Phase Distribution and Leaching Behavior of Nickel and Uranium in a Uranium Waste Rock Pile.” Water Air Soil Pollution 224 (1360): 1-11

Smith, K., “Saskatchewan Radon Gas Levels Higher than National Average,” November 24, 2014

Taeger, D., Johnen, G., Wiethege, T., Tapio, S., Möhner, M., Wesch, H., … & Pesch, B. (2009). Major histopathological patterns of lung cancer related to arsenic exposure in German uranium miners. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 82(7), 867-875.

Thomas, A. Darwin, Z. Weihua, Z., Baweja, A., and T. Bliss. “Radon Emanation in Saskatchewan Soils.” The Radiation Safety Journal Health Physics 100.6 (2011): 565-73.

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