carries some risk, so there are incremental excess risks down to the lowest rates of environmental radon decay product exposure.

In 1987, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized that current occupational standards for radon exposure in the United States do not provide adequate protection for workers at risk of lung cancer from protracted radon decay exposure, recommending that the occupational exposure limit for radon decay products should be reduced substantially. To date, this recommendation by NIOSH has not been incorporated into an enforceable standard by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration or Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Radon and its alpha-emitting radioactive decay products are generally the most important, but are not the only radionuclides of health concern associated with uranium mining and processing. Workers are also at risk from exposure to other radionuclides, including uranium itself, which undergo radioactive decay by alpha, beta, or gamma emission. In particular, radium-226 and its decay products (e.g., bismuth-214 and lead-214) present alpha and gamma radiation hazards to uranium miners and processors.

Radiation exposures to the general population resulting from off-site releases of radionuclides (e.g., airborne radon decay products, airborne thorium-230 or radium-226 particles, 226Ra in water supplies) present some risk. The potential for adverse health effects increases if there are uncontrolled releases as a result of extreme events (e.g., floods, fire, earthquakes) or human error. The potential for adverse health effects related to releases of radionuclides is directly related to the population density near the mine or processing facility.

Internal exposure to radioactive materials during uranium mining and processing can take place through inhalation, ingestion, or through a cut in the skin. External radiation exposure (e.g., exposure to beta, gamma, and to a lesser extent, alpha radiation) can also present a health risk.

Because 230Th and 226Ra are present in mine tailings, these radionuclides and their decay products can—if not controlled adequately—contaminate the local environment under certain conditions, in particular by seeping into water sources and thereby increasing radionuclide concentrations. This, in turn, can lead to a risk of cancer from drinking water (e.g., cancer of the bone) that is higher than the risk of cancer that would have existed had there been no radionuclide release from tailings.

A large proportion of the epidemiological studies performed in the United States, exploring adverse health effects from potential off-site radionuclide releases from uranium mining and processing facilities, have lacked the ability to evaluate causal relationships (e.g., to test study hypotheses) because of their ecological study design.

The decay products of uranium (e.g., 230Th, 226Ra) provide a constant source of radiation in uranium tailings for thousands of years, substantially

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement