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More Than Radon in the Uranium Dust

Copies of Full Statement with Appendices available from Southwest Research and Information Center

An Overview of the Basis for Uranium Miners and Millers - Exposed to Non-Radioactive Hazards and Radioactive Hazards other than Radon Decay Products - to be Included in US Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Program

Statement in Support of Testimony at US House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims
Hearing on Uranium Workers Health Effects and Radiation Exposure Compensation Act Amendments

June 25, 1998
Washington, DC

Prepared by
Wm. Paul Robinson
Research Director
Southwest Research and Information Center
PO Box 4524
Albuquerque, NM 87106 USA
phone 505-262-1862/fax 505-262-1864
e-mail sricpaul@earthlink.net


This Overview summarizes the basis for expansion of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990 to compensate sick or dying uranium workers, and dead uranium workers families in light of the expanded knowledge regarding the range of exposed populations and the range of hazards associated with uranium mines and mills in the US. This Statement summarizes linkages between the groups of uranium miners covered by RECA, the underground and open pit uranium miners and uranium mill workers outside the current scope of that Act. The statement also identifies research confirming that health effects among Native Americans uranium miners have been systematically under counted and undercompensated as a result of limitations in the RECA program.

In addition, research is included which demonstrates that the current Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) standards for radon control in uranium mines allows exposures at rates which have been shown to significantly increase lung cancer risk. This research. compiled by National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Task Force in 1980 has never been acted on, perhaps as a result of the severe drop off in the uranium mining industry which also began in 1980.

The linkages between underground uranium miners, open pit uranium miners and uranium miller workers include:

  • recognition of exposures to a parallel mix of hazards a higher dose uranium workers;
  • recognition that these hazards were identified by US officials without providing effective protection of workers from those hazards;
  • recognition that mill workers health impacts, though identified as early as 1952 among US millers, did not result in an effective public health response and
  • recognition that complex mix of hazards present a combination of health risks not effectively addressed by current health research or research methods.

The range of hazards presented by the uranium mine and mill environment extend well beyond the radon and radon decay products upon which the well recognized health effects among US uranium miners is based. The non-radon hazards associated with the uranium mine and mill workplace include contributions from three types of hazards materials:

  • radioactive materials associated with the uranium ore, and occurring at each mine and mill including:
    • uranium,uranium decay products such as thorium and radium, and emissions gamma and alpha radiation from uranium decay products other than radon;
  • heavy metals, occurring in varying concentrations in uranium ores including: vanadium, lead, arsenic, selenium and chromium; and
  • workplace hazards, associated with mines and mills in varying concentrations including: diesel and gasoline engine exhaust and blasting residue in mines and sulfuric acid, kerosene and other reagents in mills.

As alarming, recent research on uranium miners in the Southwest has documented greater impairment per year of uranium mining for Native American miners than non-Native Americans. This same research effort has demonstrated that health assessment measures used in RECA program are not adequate to discern these difference. This Report, "Ethnic Difference in the Prevalence of Nonmalignant Respiratory Disease among Uranium Miners", by Douglas Mapel, MD et. al. in the American Journal of Public Health, May 1995, p. 833-838, also documents the importance of a non-radon hazard, silica dust, to which miners were exposed in US uranium operations.

This overview has been written by Wm. Paul Robinson, Research Director at Southwest Research and Information Center, a non-profit scientific research and education organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico since its founding in 1971. Mr. Robinson has been an environmental analyst at Southwest Research, where he has studied uranium mining and its environmental impacts for more than 20 years. He has taught in the Community and Regional Planning Program at the University of New Mexico where he earned his Masters Degree which included a professional project relating to planning for reclamation of uranium mine and mill sites in the Former East Germany.

Southwest Research staff have had the opportunity to closely with residents of many Native American communities affected by uranium operations including: Navajo residents of the Cove and Red Rock area during the 1980s in the first campaign for uranium workers compensation and the Crownpoint area to address current uranium development proposals as well as residents of Laguna and Acoma Pueblo to evaluate health impacts among uranium workers from those communities.

While this Overview is far too brief to fully address the issues identified in detail, it does summarize key background documents to support each of these points. Additional material to address these points are available from the author among many other sources. Appendices attached to this Overview provide documentation related to the key areas addressed.


The wealth and power which the huge uranium deposits of the western United States have provided the US Government and the uranium industry was built with the sweat and strength of thousands of workers who dug the rock and ran the mills which produced the yellowcake - the refined uranium which is the first step in nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Uranium workers have included miners and millers of all races since its first boom after World War II, though a significant number of miners and millers were Native American, from the great tribes of the Southwest such as the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo of Acoma and the Pueblo of Laguna.

Unfortunately, the shining pride in these workers' feel in roles in building the world's largest nuclear power had been tarnished by the growing evidence of the frighteningly wide array of health risks related to the hazardous properties of the uranium ore they worked with. The long-term health effects of the workers' chronic and continuous exposure have become more clear over time as research around the world has been conducted on uranium workers. Sadly, this health research is proceeding after many workers have gotten ill or passed away, and become the dead or sick bodies for epidemiologists to count.

And during the past twenty years, it has also become abundantly clear that the US government, which ran the uranium program when it began, failed to either:

  1. inform the workers of the risks they faced or
  2. effectively protect them from the hazardous materials in the mines and mills.
The recent disclosures confirming AEC-era 'human radiation experiments' merely fills out the long record of ineffective education and protection of uranium mine and mill workers developed during RECA's Congressional consideration up to its 1990 passage. The extensive Internet site devoted to 'uranium miners' resources' through the DOE's Office of Human Radiation Experiment is a valuable resources on this subject which summarizes uranium miner's health research and the compensation programs since 1990.

The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990, through its establishment of a compensation program resulting from a clearly recognized US Government obligation to uranium workers and other radiation survivors, has been a precedent-setting and valuable first step by Congress. However, RECA has proven to be far too narrow in its scope of coverage and remuneration, inappropriately limiting the range and types of health problems for which uranium miners were eligible for compensation, and failing to provide coverage for the exposures visited upon a wide group of uncovered uranium miners and millers and their families. While this narrow scope may be a result of the process of political compromise, it has left an huge number of workers and their families outside its scope, in spite of the growing record of their personal or family health problems. Passage of the "Radiation Workers Justice Act of 1998" would fill the gaps left by RECA and establish a broader scope of compensations opportunities, in keeping with the broader scope of health risks to which workers were exposed.

The 'Uranium Miners Resources' web page compiled by the US DOE's Office of Human Radiation Experiments (OHRE) identifies a series of recommendations for expansion of RECA. These recommendations are included among the set of RECA amendments found in the proposed Radiation Workers Justice Act of 1998.

The fundamental basis for the passage of RECA in 1990 was recognition that US government controlled the uranium industry for more than 20 years and, driven by an urge for secrecy in an era of intense Cold War competition or a disregard for workers safety, failed to protect its uranium workers. The US government was also responsible for hiding documentation from those workers regarding the health risks associated with hazardous materials encountered during uranium operations, such as radon and its decay products.

Now, in 1998, it is clear that this secrecy went well beyond the failure to inform and protect workers regarding radon-related risks. The cover-up included then-existing and emerging documentation about the whole witch's brew of hazardous materials, both radioactive and non-radioactive, which bombarded the workers in the mines and mills, with every breath they took.

These hazards, whose risks are documented in Appendix B, include:

  • uranium - which presents chemically-derived risks to the renal system as well as radiological risks - its other decay products other than the radon daughters,
  • heavy metals and other compounds regularly found in uranium ores - notably arsenic, lead, vanadium, selenium, silica, and chromium among others;
  • and the emissions from mining technology used to remove the uranium, including engine exhaust, hydrocarbon fumes and processing reagents.

A mixture of toxins from each of these groups of hazardous materials was found in the air at each and every mine and mill operated in the US. The poor ventilation conditions in the mines and mills, which improved very slowly and incrementally as a result of regulatory enforcement during a 30 years period. The slow pace of air pollution protection left these hazardous constituents in the working areas of the mines and mills, as surely as it left the excess levels of radon decay products in the mines. The health research community has been unable to fully document radon daughter-related effects among workers after more than forty years even as the dead bodies have mounted up, in part due to the limitation of statistical analysis to provided fully certain results. And it made only a very limited effort, relative to the radon-exposure work, to address the full combination of radioactive, metal and chemical hazards facing uranium miners and millers in addition to radon decay products.


As is the case with the RECA, where the fundamental basis for uranium workers' compensation is the recognition that the owners and operators of the early mines and mills all operated under strictly controlled contracts with the AEC, and that the AEC and the operators both knew, or should have known, about the health risks forced on workers and did not act effectively to protect them.

While the piles of evidentiary material on this subject are very large, it is useful here to focus on an early and notable, yet brief, report which establishes the early recognition of health impacts among millers and the range materials to which they were subjected. This Report - Attached as Appendix A to this Statethis overview - is a May 1952 "Interim Report of a Health Study of the Uranium Mines and Mills", by the US Public Health Service and the Colorado Department of Public Health. Senior author Duncan A. Holaday would enjoy a long and distinguished career analyzing the health effects in the uranium industry.

The 1952 Report notes the long history of lung cancer associated with metal mines where uranium was produced in the Erz Mountains of Central Europe, along the Czech-Germany border where Marie Curies radiunium samples were mined (and the uranium mining region addressed by Paul Robinson's Master's project). There, health effects among miners there were first studied scientifically in 1879, when malignant tumors of the lung were clinically identified. These early pulmonary studies identified heavy metals such as cobalt, nickel and arsenic, as well as radon and its decay products, as likely causative agents.

Even at this early stage US government research included efforts to minimize the relevance of these non-US studies, asserting that: "According to the AEC, generally only one shift is employed and mines are not worked on a round-the-clock basis. Consequently, workers are not exposed immediately following blasting , when dust and radon concentrations are the highest." Unfortunately, the AEC's assertions during this period have been shown to be insupportable or erroneous, based on eyewitness statements and exposure reconstruction research.

Holaday's study notes that, in spite of this evidence of health effects at workers in the world's first uranium and radium mines in Europe, medical examinations of US uranium workers did not begin until 1950. The 1952 study is notable because it is among the very earliest evidence of health effects among US uranium workers, addressing a study group of more than 1,100, including both uranium miners and millers. The report indicates that the uranium miners and millers were not even treated separately for the first year of the two year study.

The Report notes that:

        "the medical histories of these individuals [only 30% of whom had work more than three years] showed a predominance of respiratory infections, including pneumonia and sinus infections. There was a predominance of conjunctivitis at the time physical examinations were performed. Several cases of illness which were encountered among mill workers were attributed to long-term exposures to relatively low concentrations of vanadium compounds".

Holaday's data demonstrated that as early as 1950 the devastating health damage to uranium workers was apparent.
He found that:

        "13.8% of the white miners and 26.5 % of the white millers showed more that the usual pulmonary fibrosis as compared to 7.5% for the control group. in the same year, 20% of the Indian millers and 13.2 percent of the Indian miners showed more than usual pulmonary fibrosis, as against none in the controls."

While Holaday is careful to indicate that "these figures do not infer that the pulmonary fibrosis is occurring because of contact with uranium," his findings now stand as among the very first in long series of studies confirm lung disease among US uranium workers.

The failure of the public health community to continue the study of uranium millers - a groups of thousands of workers excluded from RECA - as its did with uranium miners, is incomprehensible in view of this early data which showed 60-100% higher incidence of the lung disease in millers than miners! The failure to follow-up on this uranium miller population, after the publication of such alarming first result, appears to be a serious a failure to protect atomic workers as any other in the uranium or nuclear industry in the fifty-two years since the end of World War II.

As a result the stubborn insistence of decision-makers on using only diseases confirmed by "high-confidence-level" statistical analysis as basis for RECA eligibility has been a barrier to the recognition of damage among the many exposed communities outside the relatively narrow focus of historical uranium health effects research. These groups include the underground and open pit miners and millers with moderate but long-term exposure to radon decay products compounded by a mix of other hazardous constituents, and the groups who would be addressed with the proposed legislation.

The "Summary of Environmental Findings" in the 1952 Report provides an indication mix of hazards facing uranium workers when it provides a review of "toxic materials present and the degree of worker's exposure" in a sample of mines and mills. In mines hazards other than radon exposure included:

  • significant levels of external gamma radiation,
  • chronic levels of metals - such as uranium and vanadium - and
  • silica dust.

In the mills studied, both uranium and vanadium as well as silica dust were identified as a significant concerns other than radon.

The authors of the report though assert that "dust control at the crushing operations has been found to range from fair to poor" and recommend that "Until adequate dust control has been established ...workers should be required to wear approved dust respirators."

However little direct response from this early protection recommendation can be detected. They also detected: "relatively high concentrations of uranium and vanadium fume [in the mill] around the fusion furnaces. In practically all plants, the workers were found to be suffering from chronic irritation of the upper respiratory tract, apparently resulting from exposure to vanadium fume."

The authors even mention a condition call "green throat" among mill workers who breathe continuous levels of vanadium and uranium dust.

While the Report notes that "there are no health hazards in the mills which cannot be controlled by accepted industrial hygiene methods", the personal experience of the millers indicates that those control measure were not consistently available, or used, or maintained at levels consistent with industrial hygiene standards and practices. Basic industrial hygiene measures recommended in the 1952 Report, such as frequent showering and washing of clothes covered with mine or mill dust were largely ignored, resulting in a now-recognized pattern of in-home exposures resulting from the dusty work clothes which the workers wore home and which were often washed at home with other family clothing.


While the 1952 report notes uranium, vanadium and silica among the hazards other than radon to which miners and millers were exposure, it fails to systematically note the full range of hazardous metals and other chemicals in the mine and mill environment. Two Appendices are attached to this Overview to address these matters. Appendix B is a matrix of annotated health research data related to the range of radioactive and non-radioactive hazards found in uranium ore and Appendix C is an annotated list of Synthetic Organic Compounds, Hazardous Chemicals, Metals, and Radionuclides in Uranium Mill Processes, Waste Streams and Tailings.

The secretive nature of the AEC as an institution resulted tight control over the geological data associated with the AEC-supported uranium exploration and development in the Western US. As a result, basic exploration geology data regarding the range of metals and other compounds found with the ore was not disclosed until long after the mining activities occurred. This geologic information would of necessity include the characterization of constituent minerals in the ore, other than uranium and its decay products and vanadium, information which would have allowed a more focused and effective health education and protection program as it would have provided a clear list of the potentially hazardous constituents in those minerals, had it not been kept secret from the workers or health professionals at the time the deposits were developed.

While it has not been widely recognized that this "associated metals data" regarding uranium deposits has long existed, such would have been essential to the development of the uranium resources in the ore. Such data would by necessity include analyses of minerals, and their constituent compounds, in the ore including major and minor compounds other than the primary mineral of value, data which are fundamental research tools for exploration and mining geology and extractive metallurgy - the design of milling processed.

Published data about the first wave of uranium deposits documents the variety of hazardous heavy metals and other compounds associated with the ore, and includes the original work of the geologists characterizing the sites. As compilation of this early detail regarding ore constituents including heavy metals is a 1969 US Geological Survey Professional Paper 603 , "Uranium Resources of Northwestern New Mexico" authored by Lowell S. Hilpert. This report compiles data from hundreds of individual uranium deposits in the Colorado Plateau citing the geologic literature on a site-by-site basis, These data show the range of occurrence of several dozen metals and other elements in ores at mines, - such as chromium, lead, nickel, arsenic, cobalt, silica, and selenium - and mill pulp from those ores - including persistent levels occurrence of chromium. lead, nickel, and cobalt among others.

This 1969 Professional Paper demonstrates the detailed level to which heavy metals where identified at uranium operations for mining and milling purposes. This high degree of detail, however is lost when the uranium operations are considered from a health perspective, though the heavy metals listed have well recognized health risks associated with them for decades in the public health and occupational health literature - literature summarized in Appendix B.

A halo of surrounding heavy metal concentration is associated with most metal deposits in nature and the uranium deposits of the Western US outside in the Colorado Plateau and other uranium districts follow this well recognized pattern. A 1974 International Atomic Energy Agency report "Formation of Uranium Ore Deposits" characterizes the heavy metals associated with the major uranium districts of the western US, including those other than the Colorado Plateau. this report is a convenient basis for demonstration of the association of arsenic, selenium, and vanadium among other metals with the uranium deposits mined and milled in Wyoming, South Dakota, and Texas.


A recent study from University of New Mexico Health Science Center research documents alarming problems with the compensation methodology established under RECA. This study, "Ethnic Difference in the Prevalence of Nonmalignant Respiratory Disease among Uranium Miners", by Douglas Mapel, MD et. al. in the American Journal of Public Health, May 1995, p. 833-838, also documents the importance of a non-radon hazard, silica dust, to which miners were exposed in US uranium operations.

Included as Appendix C to this Statement, this study present two very significant findings related to the effectiveness and fairness of RECA. The study concludes that:

        "Native American miners have more nonmalignant respiratory disease from underground uranium mining, and less disease from smoking, than other groups, but are less likely to receive compensation for mining-related disease".

This conclusion is based on the study's results which are summarized as:

        "Uranium mining is more strongly associated with obstructive lung disease and radiographic pneumoconiosis in Native American that Hispanics and non-Hispanic White [subjects of the study]....Current compensation criteria excluded 24% of the Native Americans who had restrictive lung disease and 4.8% who had obstructive lung disease. Native Americans have the highest prevalence of radiographic pneumoconiosis, but are less likely to meet spirometry criteria for compensation".

The researchers identified silica dust as significant factor in the Native American health effects detected, as well as confirming the lack of smoking among the Native American miners. This lack of habitual smoking was shown to be in sharp contrast to the smoking patterns of non-Native Americans in the groups studied.

This study calls into question the fairness of RECA to Native Americans as well as the accuracy of the disease identification methods identified in RECA.


Since 1980, The National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), has been aware that "the present MSHA standard of 4 WLM per year does not provide an adequate degree of protection for underground miners exposed to radiation when it is evaluated over their exposure life time." This conclusion, presented by NIOSH Director Anthony Robbins, MD on behalf of a study group composed of the leading authorities on the subject at the time lead by Victor Archer, MD, has never acted on. This study, the summary and conclusions of which are attached as Appendix D to this Statement, was deliver to the Assistant Secretary for Health, Education and Welfare in July, 1980.

This report also identifies four "causes for the consistent disparity between company records and MESA [now MHSA] projections of the miners' average exposures to radon daughters", at p. 38. These are:

  • "Large variability in the concentration of radon daughters in some work areas during any one day (0.3 WL to 17.0 WL in the same stope on the same day);
  • Seemingly simple abatement problems indicated by the regular Federal and State inspections were accomplished simply by manipulating the mine ventilation;
  • The mechanics used by the mine operators to compute cumulative exposures were such that high readings were seldon or never reflected in the records...; and
  • Some of the mines visited used a mine average radiation concentration and every employee working underground was given the same exposure per unit time spent underground."

These problems were confirmed by a Denver Mining Research Center report, also cited in the NIOSH Task Force Study, which found that: "accurate measurements of the exposure to radon daughter products has been, and remains, the most important research problem in the Bureau [of Mines]'s radiation hazards program."

These conclusions demonstrate that not only is the MHSA 30 CFR 57.5-38 maximum radon daughter exposure standard of 4 WLM per year not sufficiently protective of worker health, but that the standard was not reliably attained in uranium mines following its adoption in 1971.


Uranium workers in this country have been exposed to mix of these radioactive non-radioactive hazards since the industry began. The recognition of health hazards from the radon and radon progeny portion of this mix has overshadowed the degree of risk facing miners and millers from these other hazards they faced with every breath. And the research community has emphasized the radon and radon progeny risks to the almost total exclusion of these other hazards as well. This lack of effective monitoring or assessment either exposure or health effects has affected workers in open pit and underground uranium mines and uranium mills throughout the Western US.

Even the radon standards adopted by the Federal Government in 1971 were not effective at preventing increased risk of lung cancer and other lung disease. The Standard did not provide an adequate degree of protection for underground miners and the standard was not reliably or consistently attained in uranium mines operated after the standard was adopted.

Most recently research has shown that health effects among Native American uranium miners are consistently undercounted by RECA health assessment methods resulting in the failure of the program to effectively compensate those miners or their families.

By summarizing this range of research related to uranium mine and mill hazards and their effects on miners and millers, this Statement provides a basis for further action by Congress, by public health advocate and researchers and by affected miners and millers to remedy this injustice, and to remedy this injustice before the last of the miners and millers have died.

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