Uranium: the Demon Metal That Threatens Us All

I am going to ramble about a bit here, but it’s a bit of a rambling tale, which I hope will come together at the end. I start with Africa.

A few years ago I was in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania, in a big thatched hall attempting to explain to the locals why it wasn’t a good idea to allow the open-cast mining of Uranium in their tribal territory. I say:

“At the beginning of time there was created the evil spirit Uranium, which deformed children and killed their parents with horrible diseases. Mungu (God) fought with the demon and trapped his power throughout the earth in the ground, tied into the rocks.

“Now greedy men wish to free the demon to use his powers to make money, but the effects will be terrible and you must not allow it.”

Later, I thought this ad hoc explanation was quite accurate.

Since 1910, childhood leukemia tracks Uranium and Radium

In 2002 my friend Richard Bramhall, on the CERRIE committee, was thinking about childhood leukemia and the arguments of Sir Richard Doll about the disease.

Doll pointed out that the death rates of this (then) entirely new condition began to increase around 1910 and continued up to the 1960s, after which medical treatment made death rate trends valueless as an epidemiological indicator.

Since the increase began before nuclear energy and fission-product releases (Sellafield, Chernobyl, Caesium-137, Strontium-90) Doll argued these could not be the cause.

But what Bramhall found was that the trend in global Uranium and Radium production fitted the trend in childhood leukemia pretty accurately. Not a proof, of course, but interesting.

Fallujah – shake, bake, irradiate

In 2009 I helped organize the first study of cancer and infant mortality in Fallujah Iraq – a paper which has now had 27,000 accesses and 18,000 downloads from the journal website and has been something of a phenomenon in the media (though not of course the BBC).

The results showed an enormous increase in cancer, and this was most clear for in children (0-14) where the rate was 12.6 times the expected and in leukemia in young adults 0-34 where the rate was 38 times the expected.

Now these are pretty astonishing findings. The biggest leukemia increase in Hiroshima was about 17-fold, and this was ascribed to radiation exposures. But whatever caused this in Fallujah, also increased rates of congenital defects in the newborn and altered the sex ratio at birth.

The sex ratio, the number of boys born per 1000 girls, fell from 1050 to about 800, a signal of genetic damage. We looked for the cause of this genetic damage in the hair of the mothers of the birth defect children and found a huge excess of Uranium. This result also caused a splash, with 16,000 accesses to the paper since its publication in 2011.

Uranium weapons cause genetic damage

Of course, these Fallujah studies just confirmed what the Iraqi doctors had been saying ever since Gulf War 1 when the US vapourised about 350 tons of the stuff over the Iraqi population. Uranium weapons were causing the genetic damage.

There were reports of similar effects in the Balkans and in Gulf war veterans and their children. Discussion can be found in these papers and the third one, where the congenital malformation rates are calculated.

The UK Gulf veterans are now in their 40s and are beginning to develop cancer. There are studies showing that US veterans have had children with birth defects. I have been involved in a number of Gulf war cancer cases in Ministry of Defence Pensions appeals, and notably in a coroner inquest in 2009 into the death of Gulf Veteran Stuart Dyson.

He died from colon cancer at the young age (for that disease) of 40, and the jury concluded that his cancer was caused by Depleted Uranium exposure, a finding that caused severe headaches for the Secretary of State for Defence.

Bomb test veterans

It is not only the Gulf veterans that were exposed to Uranium. The atmospheric nuclear tests involved huge bombs that were constructed entirely of Uranium.

The UK Grapple Y 3 megaton test on Christmas Island in 1958 (video here~ 1 minute) involved a 4 ton lump of the stuff that was atomized by the explosion and created a black rain of Uranium oxide nanoparticles that fell from the sky (along with fish that had been sucked from the sea into the cloud).

The nuclear test veterans have suffered all the same effects: cancers and a whole range of health problems. And birth defects in the children. I know about the birth defects as a result of an epidemiological study I carried out with Mireille de Messieres in 2007. This showed a 9-fold excess risk of a congenital defect in the children and an 8- fold excess in the grandchildren.

And I know about the Uranium in the bombs and the black rain as it is evidence in the case I am currently fighting in the Royal Courts of Justice in a nuclear test veteran Pensions Appeal.

Fatally flawed – the concept of ‘dose’

We can go back now and ask about the health effects following the Hiroshima bombs. The increase in cancer in the group of Japanese survivors has been and still is the foundation of the current radiation risk model. Of course, the cancers have been correlated with the radiation dose, a huge acute sudden gamma ray dose from the A-bomb.

But what if ‘dose’ is not the correct quantity to predict or explain the cancers? What if the internal exposures to the fallout caused much bigger effects?

Then the ‘control group’, those who were not there at the time of the detonation would also be affected, and the differential cancer yield based on ‘dose’ would be meaningless. There is recent interest in this and in the link between the ‘black rain’ and the cancers.

I jump now to France in 2010 where I am at a big meeting on radiation and health at the University of Paris Sud. I talk with Dr Irina Guseva Canu who has spent several years studying the French Uranium workers. She can’t get her results published, could she cite me as a referee to the journals?

I’m not surprised she can’t get the stuff published. When her findings finally appear in the literature in a rather diluted form they show that the Uranium workers suffer excess risk of leukemia and lymphomas, and also heart disease.

The ‘doses’ are very low, but are not given, though by a forensic analysis of her three papers, they can be deduced. On the basis of the current risk model they are 2,500 times too small to account for the cancers.

There is plenty of other published work that points to the dangers of Uranium exposures, mainly from inhalation of dust particles. There is chromosome analysis of Gulf War Veterans, of New Zealand Test veterans, and of Uranium workers in Namibia. There are laboratory studies of genetic and genomic effects in cell cultures, and there are the cancer rates in North Carolina by Uranium content in soils.

How did the experts get it so wrong?

Apart from the ‘skullduggery argument’, here is a possible answer. There are two things about Uranium which were known since the 1960s but not assembled into a health hazard argument.

Perhaps because of the agreement signed between the WHO and the IAEA in 1959. Perhaps because the scientists in the area were mainly physicists and not interested in the biology of internal exposures. Who knows? Maybe no-one thought of it.

First, Uranium has enormous chemical affinity for DNA and binds to chromosomes. This was discovered in 1961 and ever since then Uranyl salts have been the electron-microscope stain of choice for imaging.

The reason they create such clear, sharp images is that Uranium has the highest atomic number (92) of any natural element. Its 92 electrons block the passage of the electron microscope beam.

But that’s not all they do. They also block gamma rays. The absorption of gamma radiation (natural background radiation) by any element is proportional to roughly thefifth power of the atomic number Z .

So clearly Uranium (like lead (Z = 82), but considerably more so) blocks the passage through the body (the oxygen in water has Z=8) of background gamma radiation.

Uranium in tissues acts as a gamma ray damage multiplier

The energy from the gamma rays, absorbed by the Uranium, is therefore converted into fast photoelectrons – and these smash through the nearest tissue. And of course, the nearest tissue is the DNA in the chromosomes and in mitochondria or any other tissue that the Uranium is bound to.

This idea, as an explanation for all the anomalous biological effects of Uranium was advanced by me first in the CERRIE conference in 2004 and next in a series of papers and reports from various conferences, and an outline can be found on the web. The theory was also reported in New Scientist in 2008 in How war debris could cause cancer.

So if you have Uranium inside you, a lot of it is on the DNA (nuclear scientists say its on the phosphate in the bones, but DNA is phosphate also). And it then acts as an antenna sitting on the DNA – converting background radiation into photoelectrons which smash up the chromosomes like an egg whisk.

Note that to do this the Uranium does not need to be radioactive – just to have a very heavy nucleus with a high atomic number. Of course all isotopes of Uranium are radioactive as well, but the main natural isotopes, U-238 and U-235, are only mildly so. Their health impacts are far, far greater than can be accounted for by its own emissions of radiation.

Hence the chromosome damage found in the miners, the test veterans and the Gulf veterans and the Chernobyl liquidators, all disproportionate by large multiples to their radiation doses.

The Golden State

Finally let us go to California. In 2006 I was commissioned as an expert in a legal case involving 9 children in Los Angeles who had developed the rare eye cancer retinoblastoma shortly after birth.

They lived in the north west of the city, downwind from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory (SSFL) a nuclear site involved in research into reactor development by an outfit called Rocketdyne – a subsidiary of Boeing.

This SSFL has had a long history of disasters and releases, meltdowns and local cancer scares, but no-one has been able to nail them conclusively in terms of causality.

By delving into the annual reports of the SSFL I was able to find one key to unlock the explanation. The annual reports gave tables of measurements of Uranium in air filters; but they measured the concentrations of all three Uranium isotopes, U-238, U-235 and U-234.

From the isotope ratio it is possible to see whether the Uranium is natural (U238 / U235 activity = 21.6) or enriched – the stuff they use in reactors (U238 / U235 < 18).

There had been a huge increase in enriched Uranium in the filters at the same time as the period of the retinoblastoma cases, increases caused by the demolition of buildings and the remediation of the site, involving digging up and trucking away thousands of tons of Uranium-contaminated soil.

Add to this the published evidence that the highest rates of this rare disease is in the Navajo tribes living near Uranium mine tailings, and in children living near Sellafield, and you have a good case. Boeing settled. I am currently involved in two other cancer cases in the same area, involving women who hiked around the site and later developed cancer.

And in the UK … where’s the Uranium?

In passing I should say that a similar evidence of Uranium contamination was recently found in documents presented in support of the application to build new reactors at Hinkley Point.

It is unusual to find any measurements of uranium near nuclear sites in the UK. For some reason, although the most arcane radionuclides are routinely measured and reported in the government annual RIFE reports, Uranium is conspicuous by its absence.

I have regularly written to them about this but nothing has been done. It’s this idea that Uranium is somehow natural, and therefore unimportant.

New risk model needed for ingested Uranium

So there we are. We have traveled around the world. There are two messages from all this. First, that internal radionuclide exposures cannot be modeled on the basis of ‘dose’.

Second that this is most true for the element Uranium, present now increasingly in the environment as extremely long lived nanoparticle aerosols that can be inhaled and translocated easily into the body through the lungs, and into the brain through the nasal passages.

Attempts to persuade University scientists to study this idea (quite easy experiments) have met with the University equivalent of the kind of garlic-producing and cross-wielding response reserved for vampires. Attempts to obtain funding to carry out the studies have been blocked at every level.

Children with Cancer

I was approached last year by the huge charity Children with Cancer (a) to apply for funding and (b) to submit a paper for consideration for their big child leukemia conference.

I suggested that we look at Uranium and the cause of child leukemia, broadly on the evidence I have written about here. Both the funding for a study, and the contribution to the conference were swiftly turned down: they had someone already to talk about child leukemia and radiation, they said.

Oh, who was that? Richard Wakeford.

I know Richard Wakeford of old. He is the former head of epidemiology for British Nuclear Fuels in Sellafield, where he spent his career denying any conceivable link between radioactive emissions from nuclear power stations and other nclear industry plant, and excess cancers in their vicinity.

Here is one such example of his work: Risk of childhood leukemia after low-level exposure to ionizing radiation – in which he completely ignores the role of ingested Uranium as a gamma-ray interceptor and re-emitter of photoelectrons. Or see this article in which he downplays the risks created by the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Now he is a visiting member of the Dalton Nuclear Institute, and member of the ICRP, the International Commission on Radiological Protection, whose risk model for internal emitters and ingested Uranium underestimates health damage by a factor of more than 1,000 …

Ah, OK, well that’s alright then …

My prediction

Meanwhile here is my prediction: Uranium, the demon from the beginning of time, released by bad men for their profit, will continue, and indeed increase its genotoxic toll on life, on you, and on your children and grandchildren.

It is coming, or already has come, to a theatre near you.

Chris Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk. For details and current CV see www.chrisbusbyexposed.org. For accounts of his work see www.greeenaudit.orgwww.llrc.org and www.nuclearjustice.org.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.

Dr Chris Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Riskand the author of Uranium and Health – The Health Effects of Exposure to Uranium and Uranium Weapons Fallout (Documents of the ECRR 2010 No 2, Brussels, 2010). For details and current CV see chrisbusbyexposed.org. For accounts of his work see greenaudit.orgllrc.org and nuclearjustice.org.