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How Uranium Mining Works

A Dangerous Metal? Uranium's Health Concerns

Ever since the negative health effects surrounding uranium mining began to surface in the 1950s, public opinion about uranium mines has split into camps of support and opposition.

Both sides agree that uranium mining raises legitimate health concerns. The most dangerous aspects of uranium mining involve radon gas, radiation and toxicity hazards.

Radon gas, a direct product of radium-226, which stems from uranium-238 decay, is known to cause lung cancer [source: New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services]. Although radon may frequent all types of mines, tobacco smokers have an increased risk of developing cancer [sources: Nuclear Energy Institute; Hunter] About halfway through the 20th century, mining regulations tightened to make conditions safer. Mines now require complex ventilation systems and protective gear for miners working in conditions with radon, especially for underground mining projects. Work areas, including break rooms and small buildings on-site, are routinely tested for radon gas in the United States.

There's also the problem of ionizing radiation, which is caused more by the elements commonly found with uranium such as radium. Some radiation can travel through skin, but the type involved with extracting uranium causes the most problems when it's accidentally ingested or inhaled. Several studies have linked these radioactive elements to an increased risk of cancer [source: New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services].

Uranium itself poses more risk as a toxic substance than a radioactive element. Ingesting uranium can cause kidney problems [source: Argonne National Laboratory]. Its radioactive cousin, radium, often integrates itself into a person's bones, which can degrade a person's health and even cause death. Because of certain risks, physical demands and skills involved in all types of mining, individuals working in this industry make salaries that are usually higher than the national average [sources: Deery; Hunter]. In 2010, U.S. miners, including those who mine for uranium, made $67,000 on average -- more than $20,000 more than other U.S. workers [source: National Mining Association].

For nearby communities, the largest health risk may be contaminated drinking water from mining, which can contain radioactive particles and heavy metals. One expert estimates that it normally takes around 40 years to remediate groundwater from mining sites back to safe levels [source: Deery].

Uranium mining's effects aren't limited to humans. Next, we'll look at uranium mining's impact on the environment.