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Mining, health risks and medical geology

A little known multidisciplinary field that spans the vast scientific landscape from medicine to earth science goes by the name of “medical geology.” 

Defined in an online college course (http://ocw.mit.edu) by the same name  as “the study of the interaction between abundances of elements and isotopes and the health of humans and plants,” it is now a subject of exquisite relevance to the Commonwealth of Virginia, not to mention parts known and unknown downstream and downwind. 

The vote by a margin of 11-2 by Virginia’s Coal and Energy Commission to open a study of uranium mining in Pittsylvania County in Southside Virginia has brought this obscure discipline front and-center to all Virginians.  The General Assembly is now in the throes of debating the issue.

To put oneself in the mindset of medical geology, one must first banish all thoughts of current political boundaries. The proposed Coles Hill uranium mine near Chatham casts a shadow far larger than just Pittsylvania County.  

It is in the watershed of the Roanoke River, directly upstream of south central Virginia’s drinking water supply and reservoir for its largest city as well as a major source of the drinking water for northeastern North Carolina. And ground water can seep through the fractured and porous sub-surface rock to aquifers in the adjacent James and Dan River Basins, especially after the deep drilling needed for uranium mining. 

Prevailing wind patterns blow east by northeast from Coles Hill over Richmond and on past the nation’s capital along the eastern seaboard. So, water and wind can spread radioactivity far and wide, making Coles Hill a statewide, national and even international issue. 

Secondly, and despite one pro-mining senator’s comment that he does not care what will happen a hundred years from now, it is necessary to wrap one’s head around the immensity of geological time. 

For example, the decay of radioactive thorium-230, the longest-lived isotope of uranium-234 in the “tailings” left over from mining, has a half-life of 77,000 years, that is, half of it is gone in that period of time.  One estimate is that radioactivity from the mined deposit will still pose a human health risk 50,000 years from now. This unfathomable length of time is more than 100 times the entire 400-year history of Virginia.  

Another way of trying to comprehend this in human terms is to look back at your ancestors and extrapolate the generations forward to the future.  In my case, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Boaz, who was born 299 years and seven generations ago, lived in Pittsylvania County in the 1740s, before the French and Indian War, the Revolution and the discovery of the element uranium. 

Seven generations in hindsight seem like ancient history, but if we look into the future seven generations to our great-great-great-great grandchildren, they will still be maximally affected by any released uranium toxicity, and significant risk will remain to their descendants for up to another 1,993 generations into the future. That in human terms is almost forever.

The geological side of the medical geology of Virginia’s uranium deposits starts in the mid-1970s when a nationwide search for uranium deposits was initiated by the federal government during an international oil crisis.  

The Coles Hill uranium deposit was discovered to be one of the largest in the country. It consists of two subterranean cigar-shaped ore-bodies each about the aggregate size of three-and-a-half football fields.  

 Uranium was concentrated by metamorphic heating and crushing of 442-million-year-old rocks named the “Martinsville Igneous Complex” of the Ordovician Era originally extruded from ancient volcanoes. 

The uranium-containing rock is named the “Leatherwood Granite” because contiguous outcrops of it are to be seen near the location of Patrick Henry’s historic home by the same name in eastern Henry County.

Importantly, the deposit sits immediately adjacent to the “Chatham Fault Zone,” at which earthquakes can occur, as experienced in Virginia’s 5.8 magnitude earthquake on Aug. 23, 2011. 

The U.S. Geological Survey found that the observed landslides caused by the earthquake occurred up to 245 km (150 miles) from the epicenter in Louisa County. The Coles Hill mine site is about 140 miles away and an earthquake of similar magnitude would cause a breach in an earthen dam holding radioactive refuse water from uranium milling, dumping it into the Banister River.

The medical part of uranium’s medical geology in Virginia impacts the health and well-being of millions of people both alive and unborn. Industry-sponsored reports on uranium mining in Virginia released last year by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13266) and a Virginia state “Uranium Working Group” (www.uwg.vi.virginia.gov) focused almost entirely on cancer, prominently citing publications by one Dr. John D. Boice, a nuclear industry advocate and principal of the Maryland-based International Epidemiological Institute. 

The NAS report cites a study of his in Colorado that “did not find any evidence that the operation of the uranium mines and processing facilities increased the cancer or mortality rates for the nearby population.” This disingenuously parsed statement leaves unmentioned that Boice (Boice JD, 2007) found “a significant increase in lung cancer” among the 459 residents who had worked in the local uranium mines. Were these workers not part of the “nearby population?” 

An earlier and larger study in the same area by Dr. R.J. Roscoe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in 1997 (Roscoe, 1997) that in a group of 3238 White uranium miners from 1960 to 1990 there were “significantly elevated” risks of death from lung cancer, TB, COPD, emphysema, pneumonoconioses, diseases of the blood and blood-forming organs and unspecified tumors.  

However, the real medical disaster from uranium mining in this area of Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico befell the Native Americans who live there. 

The U.S. House of Representatives held hearings in 2007 and its report “The Health and Environmental Impacts of Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation” (http://www.gpoaccess.gov/congress/index.html) contains testimony on the Church Rock, N.M. spill during which 94 million gallons of radioactive sludge contaminated Navajo water sources, the largest such accident in U.S. history. Church Rock was the largest underground uranium mine in the world, presaging what could occur at Coles Hill in Virginia. 

A Navajo woman who lived 12 miles from Church Rock testified that she had lymphoma, her father had pulmonary fibrosis, her mother had stomach cancer, and her grandparents had both died of lung cancer.  

One congressman stated that “I have sat through a lot of hearings that made me sad and angry. But I am not sure that any hearing has shocked me as much as this one.” 

At one mine in Shiprock, New Mexico 133 out of 150 uranium miners had died of lung cancer or fibrosis by 1980 (Ali, 2003). This is not quite the same impression as Dr. Boice’s quote was intended to leave us with.

The influential World Nuclear Association recommends that uranium mining operations “engage in no activities —or acts of omission — that … would pose a burden or threat to future generations.” Keep in mind that in the case of uranium, this means 2,000 generations, or 50,000 years, if we consider 25 years an average generation time. Over that immense time span, events that may seem unlikely — an earthquake causing a breach in an earthen dam holding radioactive refuse water from uranium milling, hurricane-force winds or a tornado blowing off the containing cap of stored tailings or a drought causing a lowering of the water table and drying out of tailings that then become airborne – become much more likely, even inevitable. 

As the General Assembly deliberates lifting Virginia’s ban on uranium mining it must balance benefits and risks. A potential benefit of uranium mining in Virginia is increasing energy self-sufficiency for the U.S., and there could also be economic benefits to the local economy although these may well be offset by negative reactions to uranium mining by communities and local businesses. 

Current estimates are that stockpiled uranium reserves are sufficient for the next 50 years. The real impetus for re-initiating uranium mining in Virginia derives from the up-tick in uranium commodity prices beginning in 2007, so the relevant benefit assessment for this activity is for whom and how many. 

On the risk side, a medical geological perspective strongly suggests that uranium mining will unleash extremely long-lived disease-causing radioactive isotopes into the earth, air and groundwater that will pose a significant threat of future negative health consequences over a much wider area than Pittsylvania County. 

Noel T. Boaz is president of the nonprofit Integrative Centers for Science and Medicine, an affiliated research professor in anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University and founding director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History.