Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (CCAMU)
Citizens’ Inquiry on the Impacts of the Uranium Cycle
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A Submission from "The First Six Years"

Kelly O’Grady, RN
Executive Director,
The First Six Years

The First Six Years is a grass roots organization whose primary mandate is the promotion of optimal social, physical, and environmental conditions for the development of healthy productive children. We achieve this goal through the use of environmental monitoring and surveillance and public and professional education.

We recognize that the first six years of a child’s life is an important period of brain and nervous system development. Childhood, extending from the prenatal period to approximately age five years is a time of rapid growth and development. This makes children highly susceptible to the toxic influences of environmental threats such as lead, mercury, PCBs, pesticides and ionizing radiation.

Very briefly this presentation outlines the findings from the December 2006 report: Aborigines and Uranium: Monitoring the Health Hazards, by researchers Colin Tatz, Alan Cass, John Condon and George Tippett. The report was funded by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

High doses of radiation are known to cause cancers, foetal damage, congenital malformations and retard brain development in children. Less is known about the effects of low doses. Radiation can enter the body by ingestion of local food and water, by inhaling radioactive gases and airborne dust, and by irradiation from external sources.

Uranium has been mined and milled in a Northern Territory Aboriginal domain — the Kakadu Region of Australia — for the past three decades. Intriguingly, for decades the focus was on environmental monitoring: water quality radiation accumulation in local aquatic flora and fauna, and dose modeling but never actually measuring the impact on human health.

After 30 years of uranium mining – the impact of this activity on human health will likely start to show an effect. It often takes about 30 years from time of exposure to a carcinogen until the time when the cancer appear is diagnosed – but in the case of the uranium mines in the Kakadu region no one was tracking cancer cases, certainly not the Supervising Scientist.

In 2005, researchers Tatz, Cass, Condon and Tippett, commissioned by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, set out to determine if uranium operations did have an adverse effect on Aboriginal health in this mining region.

Since 1981 at least 120 ‘mishaps’ and ‘occurrences’ such as leakages, spillages of contaminated water, and breaches of regulations occurred although, says the report, the Office of the Supervising Scientist, claimed no harm to either the environment or human health occurred.

There is certainly evidence of a social impact.

This 2006 report summarizes an earlier study, conducted by the Uranium Impact Project Steering Committee. Completed in 1984 this study examined such factors as the provision, distribution and use of pre-mining payments and of royalties; the employment of Aborigines in the mining industry; the nature and effectiveness of consultations with Aboriginal communities; and the effects on community health profiles. The affected Aboriginal community was followed over a five year period.

Some of their findings were as follows:

• Mining revenues led to a dependence on these sources of income, leading to a decline in the one of the largest Aboriginal population centres in the Kakadu Region;
• A ‘money greed’ developed in the Region, leading to some alteration in the traditional Aboriginal ‘sharing economy’. There were now two classes of persons — those entitled to royalty payments and those who were not, and ‘sharing’, at least of money, was no longer a traditional practice;
• Despite mining company encouragement in the field of employment and training, the lack of numeracy and literacy skills hampered genuine Aboriginal employment in the two mines;
• ‘Aborigines did not have the benefit of adequate information or education about uranium, its uses, and the problems inherent in mining and milling the element. Most of the people were ignorant of the subject; many were confused about radiation; several groups showed anxiety about spillages and their effects on water and on items of traditional diet.’

In summarizng, researchers describe the Aboriginal community as a society in crisis, ‘one in which disunity, neurosis, a sense of struggle, drinking, stress, hostility, of being drowned by new laws, agencies and agendas are major manifestations’. They went on to describe the civic culture as so fragile that there should be no new developments for at least ten years — to allow the community a breathing space.

In the later 2005 study investigators conducted an exploratory research using statistical findings to examine the impact of uranium mining on Aboriginal health. What they found is startling:

There was a significant overall increase in the incidence of cancer among Aboriginal people in the Kakadu region — some ninety per cent greater than would be expected. Cancer was diagnosed in a total of 27 Aboriginal persons resident in that region. The expected cancer incidence 14.4 persons (all cancers combined).

Researchers were not able to determine possible effects on maternal and child health because data on congenital malformations and stillbirths was not available.

Researchers advise of the urgent need for continued, comprehensive monitoring of health wherever uranium mining occurs, and for at least twenty years after mines cease operation.

The First Six Years Presentation