Professor Doug Brugge was recently in Tanzania to share research about the serious health risks associated with uranium mining

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Not one month ago, on October 2, Doug Brugge found himself in an unusual place: a Tanzanian police station.

Brugge, Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts Medical School, and a Member of the Tisch College faculty, had traveled to that country’s capital for a conference on the dangers of uranium mining. The caravan that took him and other researchers to a planned mining exploration site was stopped by local police; their Tanzanian guide detained and threatened with arrest. The situation was thankfully resolved without further incident, but nonetheless tense: “We ended up staying at the police station well into the night in order to assure that our guide was released,” says Brugge, who also directs the Tufts Community Research Center.

Such are the hazards—and the importance—of warning about the effects of uranium mining in a nation whose government continually assures the populace that the practice is perfectly safe. Brugge, an expert on the health risks of uranium mining, lectured at two separate events in the country and presented clear evidence that claims of safety are, simply put, absolutely false.

“Some of the science is pretty settled and clear and in other cases it’s emerging and not yet clear,” says Brugge, “but the effects on miners, especially, are very well established.” In fact, Brugge’s first project as lead researcher at Tufts was an oral and photographic history of Navajo uranium miners in the Southwest. He has also extensively reviewed the literature about uranium mining elsewhere in the United States and in countries as far away as Tajikistan.

Uranium, he explains, is only weakly radioactive, but causes a variety of health problems ranging from kidney disease to reproductive problems and birth defects because of its heavy metal toxicity. However, the actual uranium is just the tip of the iceberg. “When it decays, it turns into a bunch of other radioactive elements; the one that’s most obvious is radon.” Says Brugge about this odorless, colorless gas: “It is one of the most exquisitely toxic carcinogens that we know of; in very tiny amounts it can cause lung cancer. Radon has caused, in large numbers, the death of miners all around the world over many, many decades.”

Brugge spoke at two conferences organized by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 and has taken a particular interest in uranium extraction in Africa. The first event was in the capital, Dodoma, near a proposed mining site, and was attended by more than 200 residents from the surrounding area.

“For the villagers, conveying the complexity and all of this is more of a challenge, but I think that they got a reasonable impression that uranium mining is not safe,” says Brugge. “The Tanzanian government is claiming that uranium is harmless, and I think the residents now understood that is not the case.”

At the second conference, in Dar es Salaam, close to 150 professionals and other concerned citizens heard Brugge’s talk—including, as it happens, the country’s Minister of Health. “It felt good that someone at that high level, from a government, who claims that there are no health risks, heard what I had to say.”

The information presented just weeks ago by Brugge and his colleagues continues to garner attention in the national press in Tanzania, and to stir an already heated debate about uranium mining there and, more generally, resource extraction in Africa. “The tension between economic development and environmental impact and health is there. That is always the argument: that uranium mining is going to lead to income,” says Brugge.

He cautions, however, that economic expectations are usually exaggerated. “The price for uranium has declined in recent years, making it much less profitable than it used to be, and nuclear power is not expanding the way people thought it would,” says Brugge. “I think there’s a lot of hype, whether it’s in Virginia or Tanzania, that uranium is going to bring a lot of money, and I don’t see it happening.”

While Brugge thinks it likely that the Tanzanian government will go ahead with its proposed mining operations, he is convinced that raising awareness of the associated risks, particularly at the grassroots level as he did in Dodoma, is crucial to helping the people who will be directly affected by the uranium extraction.

“I think this work is important because after 50, 60 years of uranium mining and all of that experience—in the U.S., Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, and elsewhere—it would be a real shame to have the same mistakes and problems recreated on the African continent when we know what those problems are and how to prevent them.”