Health

[Above] “Why This Navajo Family Drinks Toxic Water,” (2016). Courtesy of AJ+, Video Link.

The video above shares the story of a couple who has to drink the uranium contaminated water because there are no other options.

Uranium mining was by no means a healthy endeavor. Many Navajo people worked in these mines with jobs including: “blasters, timber men, muckers, transporters, and millers.”[1] At the time that uranium mining took place in the Navajo Nation, scant information about the effects of radiation was provided for the workers.[2] In fact, there was not even a word for “radiation” in the Navajo language, thus isolating the population “from the general flow of knowledge about radiation and its hazards by geography, language, and literacy level.”[3] Many former uranium miners and their families “say that they had no idea that there were long-term health hazards associated with uranium mining.”[4] Throughout the 20th century, “uranium mining was associated with high rates of lung cancer,” and today, the impact of uranium manifests itself in a different but eerily similar way.[5]

The huge piles of uranium tailings “post their own dangers, separate and apart from radiation.”[6] Large quantities of uranium can be found in much of the housing and infrastructure in the Navajo Nation, exposing the lungs of residents to toxic radiation.[7] As a result, many families summered from lung cancer and other forms of cancer.[8] As rain seeps into the piles, all of the radioactive particles found in the dust “keep right on going into the water table underground.”[9] Prior to 2000’s the “maximum safe level for uranium in drinking water,” had not been figured out by the EPA.[10] In 2000, the maximum safe level for uranium in drinking water was set as 30 picocuries per liter, and wells in the Navajo Nation and up to 139 picocuries per liter and “lakes formed in abandoned pits,” contained up to 4,024 picocuries per liter of uranium.[11] Residents were cautioned not to consume water from these wells or lakes, restricting their access to safe drinking water.[12]The contaminated water also had an effect on several children suffering from what is now called Navajo neuropathy.[13] Navajo neuropathy patients “had liver damage, dimmed vision, and most dramatically, fingers and toes that gradually fused and stiffened into hooks. They tended to die young. The average age of death was ten.”[14]

Additionally, the 1979 Church Rock Uranium mill spill caused a dam to breach and “93 million gallons of radioactive liquid poured” from a pond severely contaminated with uranium, burning everything in sight.[15] The Navajo people were advised to avoid drinking the water downstream of the spill, but the alternatives were scant.[16] Many of the health effects that result from the uranium contaminated water are long-term, and appropriate health measures are often not taken.[17] Today, cancer is the leading cause of illness and death in the Navajo Nation and majority of their wells are running dry.[18] The Navajo’s access to water in order to sustain a healthy lifestyle and avoid these risks of disease, make the fight for water justice in the Navajo Nation imperative.

 


 

[1] Brugge, Doug and Goble, Rob, “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People.” American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 9 (2002): 1411.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 1412.

[6] Pasternak, Judy, Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land the Betrayal of the Navajos, (New York: Free Press, 2010), 131.

[7] Ibid, 135.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 143.

[11] Ibid, 143.

[12] Ibid, 144.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 149.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 151.

[18] Brett Schlesinger and Neha Shastry. “Living Without Water: Contamination Nation.” VICE News. November 24, 2015, accessed November 30, 2016. VICE Documentary