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Suffering From Exposure

Suffering From ExposureAfter living near high levels of radiation for years, the Navajo community may be facing a major health risk, says a Tufts expert. Monument Valley, Utah.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [07.16.01] For years, their land supplied the essential raw materials needed to build the nation's nuclear weapons and power plants. While the Navajo community of Monument Valley, Utah, doesn't mine uranium for the government anymore, their lives continue to be closely bound to the highly radioactive materials as scientists uncover the damage caused by years of exposure.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that nearly 1,150 abandoned uranium mines have been found on the Navajo reservation over the last 20 years, helping to cause radiation levels up to 25 times higher than EPA emergency levels.

And many Navajo homes -- called hogans -- are built close to these high-radiation areas, sometimes even constructed with radioactive uranium ore.

"If this were a house in the suburbs of Boston, this would have been a scandal," Doug Brugge -- a professor of community health at Tufts' Medical School -- told the Tribune. "People would have been outraged."

The Navajo community is, but they say the government has been slow to investigate the health hazards of their land.

The Tribune reported that the government began testing for radiation hot spots in the reservation's land and water in 1997, but doesn't have the resources to determine how many Navajo homes contain dangerous levels of radiation or what is responsible for many of the health problems within the community.

According to the Utah newspaper, Brugge said scientists can't wait any longer to conduct a full-scale investigation of the radiation's impact.

"[Brugge says] the uranium hogans warrant immediate and thorough attention," reported the Tribune.

Many members of the Navajo community are worried that they cannot escape major health problems and Brugge told the Tribune that scientists need to learn more before they will know the extent of the damage.

The Tufts scientist -- who grew up on the Navajo reservation as the son of an anthropologist -- said radiation's impact depends on several factors.

"It would depend on what kind of radioactive material individuals were exposed to; how much time they spent in high radiation areas; whether they breathed it, ate it, drank it or absorbed penetrating gamma radiation; whether they had a child's fast growing cells or a senior's long accumulation of radiation," reported the Tribune.

The answers to those questions are extremely important.

"[According to Brugge], without that knowledge, it would be wrong to assume everyone will someday get lung cancer, genetic damage or other ailments associated with radiation," the Tribune reported.

But Brugge told the newspaper that the Navajo community's concern is quite realistic.

"What people are concerned about it highly plausible," Brugge said.

Photo by Doug Brugge

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