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The Dirty Truth? Tufts Prof Will Touch on Uranium Mining’s Effects on Reproduction

The Dirty Truth? Tufts Prof Will Touch on Uranium Mining’s Effects on Reproduction

The rise of the Atomic Age in the 1940s carried with it the promises of new energy and economic frontiers. It built towns in the Southwest and provided jobs.

And then, the industry packed up and left, though it left much of itself behind in the form toxic waste and economically exhaled towns.

It’s in the industry’s remains that Doug Brugge, a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University, toils. He’s done oral histories on mining’s impacts on the Navajo Nation and has followed that work up with studies on the heath impacts of uranium mining and the ethical issues in researching the problem. In a sense, he’s an expert in devastation.

“The majority of the studies I have read suggest that there are health problems with exposure,” he said. “It points toward concern rather than away from it.”

Brugge is in town this week to discuss the issue in a talk titled “Dirty Secrets: the Health Effects of Uranium Mining — New Research.”

The discussion is free at 6 p.m. Monday at the Palm Theatre and comes at a particularly relevant time, as Montrose County Commissioners gave their approval of a uranium mill to be built in the lonely reaches of western Montrose County, between here and Moab, Utah, in the fall of 2009.

Now, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is reviewing the proposal and will issue a final decision sometime in January. The mill’s approval would be the first in 25 years and has become a polarizing issue around Telluride, a town founded on mining that is now dependent on tourism. Those near the planned mill and from communities that participated in the first atomic boom generally support the idea and say their towns need jobs desperately while some Telluriders have taken a hard line, believing the environmental and health risks are too great.

Brugge is from the Southwest — he grew up in Gallup and Albuquerque, N.M. — but didn’t align his research with the region because of his roots, he said. Once he left school, he visited the reservation with his father. At the time, Brugge was working in environmental health and saw a Navajo newspaper story on the issues in uranium mining, which had cast a long shadow over the Navajo Nation.

He saw an opportunity for research, and carried out an oral history project that put him face to face with old miners, widows and children of those who worked in the mines.

“It was a very bad situation in a lot of ways. The mines were still there. They were providing no economic benefit, but they were still contaminating the environment,” he said. “There was a lot of anger and sadness.”

There was a newly established program that awarded compensation to miners and families affected by the process, but “many miners who were deserving of compensation were being denied,” he said.

He talked to a woman who had lost a swath of her family to the mines, to those whose husbands, fathers and grandfathers had died.

“The science is very clear on the effects of working in underground mines,” he said, highlighting radon gas and silica as medical villains responsible for lung cancer and silicosis, respectively. Brugge will focus on new research revolving around reproductive issues associated with uranium mining.

The exact health effects, though, are hard to pin down. A recent New Yorker article out of Nucla, “The Uranium Widows,” did its best to debunk the notion that uranium mining hollowed out families with cancer due to mining alone, and even Brugge admits it’s difficult to prove that uranium mining causes sickness all by itself.

Did the miner smoke, which could also cause lung cancer? Are they genetically prone to other illnesses that could mirror symptoms of a lifetime of mining?

“You have to make decisions with less-than-perfect evidence to go on,” Brugge says.

There are a series of cancers and health problems that are well known to be associated with uranium mining. Lung cancer holds hands with radon. Radium has been known to cause bone cancer. “The associations with uranium with cancer are not as clear,” Brugge says. It documented to cause kidney problems, and there is a growing literature that points toward reproductive harm. “But none of those are directly caused by uranium ore.”

The truths of the early Atomic Age are hazy, in large part to the cloak of secrecy that shrouded the Manhattan Project. Workers had no idea they were helping build a bomb that could level the landscape of warfare until after the fallout.

“At the core of it was this national security concern,” Brugge said. “It’s my opinion that that led to a culture of secrecy and a lack of openness. Because of that, people were not told about the risks. … A lot of people were exposed who really could have been protected.”

The United States government, he said, bears a heavy brunt of that responsibility, because it held a monopoly over the industry in its inception.

Brugge works in the past every day, taking note of the footprint the mining companies embossed on the land and taking inventory of the missing limbs of family trees.

So it’s hard for him to believe that the mines of the future can dig cleaner than those of the past.

“What the proponents will say, is this time they’re going to do it right,” he said. “I’m influenced a lot by what I saw… and that’s just the total devastation that some of these old communities experienced. And even if these things were substantially better, it still would not be a great situation.

“I can’t forget the past. For me, the past is relevant and I can’t dismiss it entirely.”

The Advocacy Coalition of Telluride, the Town of Telluride, the Pinhead Institute and the Telluride School District all partnered to bring Dr. Brugge to town.

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