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Fighting Radioactive Contamination in Africa

Friday, December 18, 2015

At a recent conference Prof. Doug Brugge, a leader of Tisch College's community-based research efforts, continued to sound the alarm about dangerous pollution from uranium mining in Africa.

Doug Brugge at uranium mining conference

Last month, together with important co-sponsors, the Nobel prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War hosted “The Nuclearisation of Africa” conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Doug Brugge, Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts School of Medicine and a member of the Tisch College Faculty, participated in the conference. A leading expert on the adverse health effects of uranium mining, Dr. Brugge offered a lecture on “Combined Radioactive and Toxic Effects of Uranium” and participated in a panel titled “After the Closure of the Mine – Job Creation and Compensation.” Tisch College recently spoke with Brugge about the complex reality of resource extraction in Africa and possible paths forward to better protect the health of millions.


Tisch College: This isn’t the first time you’ve traveled overseas to share insights about the dangers of uranium extraction. You were in Mali in 2012, Tanzania in 2013, and now in South Africa. Why have you made this kind of education and outreach an important part of your work?

Doug Brugge: I think academics bring credibility to the issue. When lay people, community members, and non-scientists talk about environmental health their passion is great, but they may not be authoritative on the science. Now, as an academic and researcher I am somewhat limited in the advocacy role that I can play and even what I feel comfortable saying. Community-based organizations, organizers, and activists are critical in building public pressure around an issue, because policy and practice respond to public pressure as much or more than they do to science. But researchers can fill that gap and also keep the activists closer to an evidence-based set of demands.

TC: Give us a sense of the scope of this problem in sub-Saharan Africa.

Brugge: Africa is a mineral-rich continent, which has been exploited at the risk of the local population for a very long time. Increasingly, uranium is being mined on the continent as mining becomes less viable in developed countries due to costs and environmental restrictions. So while Africa has produced only 16.8% of the world’s uranium to date, it now has 46% of the world’s uranium mine waste because of the low grade of the ore mined there.

Many people in Africa are not aware of the risks associated with uranium mining and are eager for jobs. Uranium transforms into radon and other radioactive elements. Exposure to uranium can have profound health consequences like kidney disease, reproductive problems, and birth defects, and radon is a powerful cause of lung cancer.

TC: What were some of the highlights of this most recent conference in Johannesburg?

Brugge: The conference was inspired by the fact that gold in South Africa is collocated with uranium. Thus, the active and abandoned gold mines are heavily contaminated with uranium and other radionuclides, and the gold fields in South Africa may be as contaminated at the areas around the Chernobyl nuclear site.

On the third day we toured some of those gold mines outside Johannesburg. The massive “slime dams” seemed to be everywhere. One informal settlement we visited has mine waste on two sides, in immediate proximity to families with young children. This presents a huge public health concern.

TC: This seems like a pervasive issue—is the government doing anything to address it? Do companies have to provide safeguards for the environmental impacts of their work?

Brugge: From what I was told, the African National Congress, which I admired greatly during my youthful activist days when it was under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, has little appetite to address this massive environmental contamination. On one level this is deplorable, especially for situations such as the shanty town that I visited, but on another it is perhaps understandable. The cost of an effective environmental remediation program [the removal of contaminants from soil, groundwater, sediment, or surface water] would be extravagant. In the United States and Germany, programs to control the hazards at uranium mills and mines have cost billions. Where would the money come from in South Africa? The tradeoff between economic growth and environmental degradation is just one challenge for developing countries.

Tisch: Do you see any possible solutions?

Brugge: During the conference we also visited a working mine that is reclaiming gold from the tailings, or waste, of an old mine. The profit margin is very thin, but they are doing some remediation. One thing that concerned me was the contaminated ground water is simply recycled rather than cleaned, leaving contaminated ground water. But as imperfect as this operation was, it suggests a possible model to decommission other abandoned mines and slime dams.

I raised this idea to a couple of people at the conference and at least was not laughed out of the room. But feasibility would depend on a viable economic model, which I am not qualified to assess. However, if viable, this model would also provide jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Tisch: The conference was held at an interesting time with the 2015 Paris Climate Conference happening just a couple of weeks later. What can the rest of the world do to address a problem like this, and what do you see happening over the long term?

Brugge: The question of what we can do to address an environmental problem when the government won’t or even can’t take the lead is an interesting one. This might come into play when the costs are virtually insurmountable, as in this case in South Africa.  Many of us are justifiably cautious about anything that seems like privatization of what should be government functions.  But it strikes me that, in situations in which there is a valuable resource that can still be extracted from mine waste, it could be used to fund decommissioning of at least some of the hazardous sites.

Over the long term, the shift to green and renewable energy sources must be part of the solution.  As solar, wind and other renewables become more viable economically, I think we need to focus more on them than on nuclear and fossil fuel. I hope we are seeing the beginning of a large scale shift to cleaner energy production. But even the new power sources depend on mining rare earth metals, which can also be highly destructive, so we need to push them to be even more environmentally friendly.

In any case, the South African people deserve some relief from the massive environmental contamination that gold and uranium extraction have left. And I think we should not leave any stone unturned as we explore options and possibilities, nor should we let ideological blinders prevent us from considering potentially viable options.