Uranium has been mined in Australia since the early 1900s and now the country produces 23% of the world’s total uranium haul. While Australia itself does not use nuclear power, it’s the world’s 3rd top producer of the substance. Today there are just three uranium mines operating in Australia, and that may have a lot to do with the health hazards that come with the substance.
Uranium ores themselves are not that dangerous, inhaling it is, however. During the mechanical extraction process dust particles of the substance (and radon) are released, thus the risk of inhalation increases sharply. It’s at this point that the health hazards become more apparent.
- Lung Cancer
Extended exposure to these products presents the greatest risk in uranium mining. Being exposed to radiation can increase the risk of lung cancer and this has been the case in uranium miners exposed occupationally to radon. It has also been linked to stomach cancer.
- Birth Defects
When uranium enters the body it mutates, damaging DNA and chromosomes, thus increasing the risk of birth defects.
- Kidney Damage
Once ingested it is highly toxic to the body and begins to attack the organs, in particular, the kidneys. It can also wreak havoc on the gallbladder, blood, and contribute to psychological disorders.
As noted above, uranium is damaging to chromosomes, thus it increases the likelihood of children developing leukemia. This exposure can happen in utero.
Of course, there are risks to the general public in areas where uranium mines exist. Some of these substances present dangers when airborne and uncontrolled releases could occur due to extreme events such as fire, earthquake, and flood. There is also the risk of groundwater contamination which would affect the local population.
The risk remains even when the mines are no longer extracting uranium. Western Australia has banned new uranium mines; however, the existing mines are considered safe (for now).