The Navajo Nation is a semi-autonomous nation controlled by the United States of America’s government. It is located on the northeastern portion of Arizona, southeastern part of Utah, and northwestern part of New Mexico. Among all the Native American nations under the jurisdiction of the United States, the Navajo nation has one of the largest, if not the largest, land mass. One of the highlights in this native American tribal nation is the presence of public lands that possess natural sights such as the Ship rock that offers a spectacular view of a ship-shaped rock located in San Juan country, New Mexico, and the Antelope Canyon, one of the most visited canyons located Northwest of America, specifically in Page, Arizona, among others. All in all, the lands under the internationally-recognized territory of the Navajo Nation encompass 27,000 square miles spread over three states in the four-cornered region, specifically, the sates of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
The uniqueness of the landscape in Navajo nation, and the total land area allocated for that unique landscape are some of the reasons why there are huge deposits of Uranium and other mineral resources in the relatively compact island of Navajo. The local government of Navajo, for so many years, has taken advantage of that richness in Uranium reserves. Uranium is a metallic element that is partly silver and partly white in color that is commonly used in nuclear experiments and processes. It is a radioactive element.
The United States government, together with all the private corporations who spearheaded the mining and extraction operations was, by that time, well aware of the different risks and expected physiological reactions of chronic and excessive exposure to radioactive chemicals such as Uranium which was the subject of their mining operations. However, according to reports, such health risks and threats, against the Navajo native mine workers they employed, were voluntarily disregarded by the private corporations as well as the United States government—which again, by that time, was engaged in an intense nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union . Not only that, the private corporations as well as the U.S. government also failed to inform the mine workers about the work-related risks they were being exposed to .
Some of the most commonly used Uranium isotopes in the field of nuclear science are Uranium 232, Uranium 235, and Uranium 238. Both of these isotopes are radioactive and by that, it means they also carry the risks of radioactivity discussed above. The half-life of Uranium 238 is 68.8 years; Uranium 235 has a half-life of 704 billion years; and lastly, Uranium 238 has a half-life of 4.46 billion years . Half-life (also known as terminal or biological half-life) is the amount or length of time it takes for a chemical or substance, which in this case is Uranium in the form of its various isotopes, to lose half (1/2) of its radiologic, physiologic, and or pharmacologic activity and effects. In the case of the examples of Uranium isotopes discussed, it would take 68.8 or roughly 70 years for Uranium 238 to lose half, and not its entire, physiologic, pharmacologic, and or radiologic activity and that it will remain radioactive for as long as the chemical remains molecularly active. Currently, the mines located at different locations in Navajo Nation are closed. However, because it theoretically takes a lot of time for the Uranium isotopes extracted there to lose its radioactivity, as explained by its half-life, contamination still continues, particularly in the homes of the residences and in the drinking water sources, putting the health and well-being of the Navajo Nation natives at great risks.
Who is at risk of Uranium Mining?
There are two groups of people who may have been put at risk when the Uranium Mining operations started in Uranium-rich areas of Navajo Nation: firstly, the people who worked at the mine, and secondly, those who lived in close proximity to the mines—regardless whether they worked as miners or not. Take note that for the second group of people, no one is exempted, Anyone can be a subject to the risks and health consequences of being exposed to radioactive chemicals such as Uranium, including women, children, infants, newborns, or even those who are yet to be born. As mentioned in the discussion of the geographical location of Navajo Nation, there are three states that enclose the nation in four corners. Those states are Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. It makes sense to think that people who live or used to live in these three states by the time the private corporations, in partnership and with the support of the United States government, started conducting Uranium mining and extraction operations, are the ones who can be considered to be at risk. Additionally, since radioactive chemicals can contaminate drinking water sources, it can be assumed that those who were able to drink from the Uranium-contaminated water sources in areas in close proximity to the Navajo Nation uranium mining and extracting operations, particularly the mines themselves and the Uranium storage materials, may also be at risk.
What was contaminated from the Uranium Mining in the Lands of Navajo Nation?
It is highly likely that the Uranium contamination as a result of the unmitigated and irresponsible mining operations conducted both by the private corporations and the United States government has spread to the structures and residential yards (automatically affecting those who were living in those structures or quarters). As a response to the health risks of Uranium mining, people residing in some 34 structures located in close proximity to the mines were evacuated excluding 12 residential years. Water sources located near the mines and Uranium storage centers may have been contaminated as well. According to a series of water sample analyses, some 30 percent of the Navajo Nation population already stopped utilizing the Navajo Tribal Authority (NTUA) public water systems because of fears that the water being circulated in such systems may have been contaminated with Uranium. Residents that fall inside those 30 percent of the Navajo Nation population get water for drinking and for other purposes either from NTUA watering points or from other unregulated sources. Obtaining water from NTUA watering points may be a practical choice since the residents can, at some point, be sure that it is a regulated water source—meaning, it knows and follows a certain set of safety and sanitation standards, compared to the act of obtaining water from unregulated sources. Out of the 240 sampled unregulated water sources, 29 of the samples (which is roughly 12 percent of the total number of water samples), exceeded drinking water standards for radionuclides, including Uranium . The same study found that 22 percent of the residents haul their water exclusively, and 53 percent haul their water in irregular intervals. The contamination of water sources may spread to other areas, even those that are not in close proximity to the Uranium mines or storage facilities because water would inevitably flow from one body to another. Contaminated water in a river located near one of the mines or uranium storage facilities may, for example, flow into larger bodies of water, thereby increasing the risk or chances that other groups of people may also be affected.
Where is the risk of being exposed to Uranium Mining Radiation?
As mentioned earlier, the mines and uranium storage facilities which used to be the hottest spots of uranium contamination during the Cold War era and some years thereafter, are no longer in operation. But because of the relatively long Uranium half-life, which was explained earlier, the lowest of which was roughly 70 years, the areas where the mines were located ad stored, and other areas that are in close proximity to such structures or locations may still be contaminated. To accurately and continuously identify which areas are still heavily contaminated, the United States EPA, in cooperation with the Navajo EPA started using the Comprehensive Database and Atlas. This tool has also aided the two organizations in determining which mines should be cleaned up first. The United States and Navajo EPA have so far finished screening some 521 abandoned uranium mine areas. Currently, the focus of the two Environmental Protection Agency is on the Eastern, North Central, Northern, and Western regions of the Navajo lands, as evidenced by the numerous de-contamination processes being conducted by the U.S. EPA there. As mentioned earlier, uranium contamination may spread to other nearby others. In that case, it can be assumed that other Navajo lands located in the states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona are also contaminated.
Where Uranium Mining Hazards Come From?
During typical mining operations, mine workers often get exposed to dust and radioactive radon gas. These two are often located inside the uranium mines so there is a great chance that these substances are contaminated. Once inhaled by the miners, they automatically get contaminated by uranium, thereby exposing them to the different adverse health risks and effects of radioactive chemical contamination. Additionally, during the mining process, large amounts of Uranium-contaminated water are pumped out of the mine and released to the adjacent rivers and lakes, spreading uranium radioactivity to the environment. Now, there is supposed to be some kind of ventilation mechanism that private mine operators have used during the uranium mining operations. In a typical ventilation setting, there is supposed to be areas where the air can go in and out of the mine so that the miners can breathe. Now, the problem lies not on the air intake mechanism but on the air outflow holes. Since in a normal mining operation, a certain amount of uranium contaminated dust and radon gas is involved, it can be assumed that air that comes from inside the uranium mines are contaminated and so every time a certain amount of air flows out of the mine that contaminated air can contaminate other nearby or ever far-flung areas.
How does the body react when overexposed to Uranium Mining radiation
According to medical reviews, a medical element possesses the ability to dramatically change, or in most cases, destroy the inherent or normal structure of cells in a person or other living organism’s body. Some of documented effects of excessive exposure to radioactive materials, which well includes uranium, include but may not be limited to damages to the renal system, nervous system (especially in the Central Nervous System), DNA mutations (contributes to the increased occurrence of different types of cancers), bone and muscle destruction, damages to the reproductive, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, integumentary, and immune system. Apart from damages to the body systems, excessive exposure to uranium have also been associated with visual dysfunctions, occurrence of rare cases of blood disorders (impaired production of RBC contributing to low RBC blood concentration and hemoglobin content), and myocarditis . Considering all the possible physical and medical disorders that may occur as a result to excessive exposure to radioactive elements such as uranium, an inherently abundant resource in the lands of Navajo Nation, it can be asserted that it is a toxic chemical which can pose as a threat to the health of the Native Americans who live near the Uranium deposits.
What Role do Age, Race, Sex, and genetics play in overexposure of Uranium Mining in Radiation?
There is no direct correlation between age, race, sex, and genetics and overexposure to Uranium as a result of Uranium mining because everyone regardless of their age (even unborn alive fetus may be exposed from uranium and suffer from the adverse health effects of it), race, sex, gender, and genetics can be overexposed to and contaminated with Uranium . The rule of thumb in radioactive material exposure suggests that a higher level of contamination would often translate to higher degrees of health complications.
What are the Health Endpoints of Concern Regarding Overexposure to Uranium Mining?
It has already been mentioned earlier that some of the harmful or adverse health effects of overexposure to Uranium or other radioactive chemicals include but are not limited to damages to the renal system, nervous system (especially in the Central Nervous System), DNA mutations (contributes to the increased occurrence of different types of cancers), bone and muscle destruction, damages to the reproductive, respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, integumentary, and immune system. One of the most common complications that mine workers in the Navajo Nation uranium mine and storage centers are Lung and other types of cancer.
How long does it take to develop adverse health effects due to uranium mining radiation overexposure?
The amount of time it takes to develop adverse health effects due to uranium mining radiation depends on the amount of radiation someone has been exposed to or the level of contamination . Naturally, a higher degree or level of contamination would translate to a faster and more severe manifestation of adverse effects on health . Some of the initial findings that may be expected from a person exposed to radiation include but are not limited to nausea, fatigue, vomiting, skin burns—for the first few hours; hair loss and diarrhea—within the first two to three weeks; and mental retardation, impaired kidney function, cancer, and death—from several hours to days after initial exposure.
Indicators of Environmental Injustice and Racism
The Navajo Lands, together with all the people who live and used to live in it became devastated, environmentally, in terms of health, and economically because of excessive profit seeking actions by the U.S. government, the local government of Navajo at some point—because they still had some power to stop what the federal government was planning to conduct in their jurisdictional area, and the private corporations who spearheaded the Uranium mining and extraction operations . These three groups also failed to consider the possible effects of their profit-motivated actions on the health of the miners, their family members, and the future of the Navajo lands in the long run. They focused more on the short term gains, how the U.S. could win the nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union, its post-World War II nemesis, and how it can profit from the different businesses that may be associated with the nuclear industry. Many people from the Navajo nation had their health compromised simply because they lived in close proximity to the uranium mines and were overexposed to the radiation. Numerous residents were forced to move from their homes because those had already been heavily contaminated with radiation as a result of excessive, irresponsible, and lightly regulated uranium mining. A large portion of the Navajo people lost access to water not contaminated by uranium. Access to clean drinking water is one of the most basic rights of a human and clearly, through the actions of the U.S. federal and the Navajo Nation local government, and of the private corporations that were involved in the Uranium mining operations, was violated. Sources of clean drinking water became contaminated with Uranium. Using water from such sources would only lead to graver consequences, mostly in health. All of these events clearly show the presence of environmental injustice and racism in the Navajo Nations during the time the Uranium extraction mines were still in operation or perhaps even now. Profit and being able to win the nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union prevailed over the health and welfare of the Navajo Nation residences and mine workers, and the long term living conditions in Navajo Nation, which is one of the gifted places in the planet in terms of spectacular views and other natural resources.
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