It is no secret that uranium mines have been contaminating the Navajo reservation and its inhabitants for decades. But it wasn’t always that way. Back when uranium mining first started on the reservation, the residents were not informed of any of the dangers.
“The Navajo people did not have a word for ‘radioactivity’ when mining outfits looking for vanadium and uranium began moving onto their land in the 1940s, and they did not understand that radiation could be dangerous,” writes Carrie Arnold in Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal put out by the National Institutes of Health. “They were not told that the men who worked in the mines were breathing carcinogenic radon gas and showering in radioactive water, nor that the women washing their husbands’ work clothes could spread radionuclides to the rest of the family’s laundry.”
They know now. The journal details the lives of families living with the toxic legacy of uranium—“521 abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, ranging from small holes dug by a single prospector into the side of a mesa to large commercial mining operations.”
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And now, being displaced temporarily—sometimes for years—to make way for cleanup efforts is a common occurrence for people like Jackie Bell-Jefferson and her family. But that is the least of the problems handed down to the Navajo by uranium mining. Miners and non-miners alike were afflicted with cancers and other diseases unknown to the Diné before mining came along. In fact, the journal article relates, mining companies insisted that workers not be told of the dangers, in return for letting health workers conduct research on radiation’s effects.
“To get access to the workers, the researchers had to strike a Faustian bargain with the mining companies: They could not inform the miners of the potential health hazards of their work,” the story states. “Seeing it as the only way to convince government regulators to improve safety in the mines, the researchers accepted. By 1965, the investigators reported an association between cumulative exposure to uranium and lung cancer among white miners and had definitively identified the cause as radiation exposure.”
The legacy continues to trickle down through the generations. Today, studies are under way to find ways to mitigate the damage. And the mines are still being cleaned up.
Read Once Upon a Mine: The Legacy of Uranium on the Navajo Nation in Environmental Health Perspectives at the NIH.