Cancer, genetic defects
are uraniumís legacy
An interview with Dr. David Maxwell
UPdate Fall 2008
Barb Harris from UPdate spoke with Dr. David Maxwell, a NS physician who believes
uranium mining creates unacceptable health hazards for the population. Dr.
Maxwell is a retired professor of Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine at
Dalhousie University, and spent many years as an emergency medicine physician
at the QE 11 Hospital in Halifax, NS.
UPdate: What makes uranium mining different from other types of mining?
DM: The fundamental difference is the creation of very, very long lasting piles
of radioactive material. Once you have released radon from the rock, it is
going to be released continuously for tens of thousands of years, and you can’t
stop it. There is no way to put the genie back into the bottle.
When it is locked in the rock, the radon remains in the rock and doesn’t
do any harm. Once you have crushed the rock up into fine sand, the radon can
escape into the atmosphere and will. There is no way to stop it.
Once its in the atmosphere, it drifts variable distances depending on how strong
the wind is, and in the next three and a half days it turns into polonium 218,
and these radioactive materials then end up in the environment. They are washed
out of the atmosphere in the rain, they are taken up in the vegetation, and
the animals that eat the vegetation accumulate these products.
UPdate: What are some of the health effects of exposure to these radioactive
DM: Radioactivity damages cells, and there is no safe level of radiation. Radon
is one of the breakdown products of uranium. Radon is a gas, you inhale it,
you breathe it into your lungs. The daughter products of radon 222 are deposited
in the lung, irradiating the surrounding cells. Lung cancer is what you get
from radon. You can also get other cancers from the other radioactive materials
which are present. The thorium, polonium 219 and radium clearly are dangerous
The other thing that radiation exposure does is interfere with the gene pool.
You cause chromosome breaks, which cause genetic defects, pregnancy losses,
lowered fertility and all the things that happen when you disrupt people’s
Pregnancy losses, lowered fertility and birth defects are all due to chromosome
breaks, and the chromosome breaks are very well studied. There is a considerable
body of literature documenting the chromosome abnormalities.
Uranium itself also has estrogenic effects. It is an endocrine disrupter. This
is completely separate from its radioactivity. Uranium is the heaviest of the
heavy metals essentially, so it has the same sorts of effects as any other
of the heavy metals. If you ingest it, it causes heavy metal poisoning, Most
of the heavy metals actually cause neurologic damage or endocrine damage. Lead
is bad for you, arsenic is bad for you -- so is uranium.
UPdate: You’ve explained that radioactivity is released into the air,
and becomes part of the surrounding environment. Can it also contaminate water
supplies in surrounding areas?
DM: My feeling is that it is absolutely inevitable that if you have a huge
lake full of radioactive mud -- which you get when you dig up the solid rock
in which everything is neatly stored and you grind it up into a fine powder,
and mix it with water and put it in a big pond -- that it is idiotic to say
its going to stay in that pond for the next 10,000 years. It is going to leach
down into the water table and get distributed. It will travel as far as water
travels, as far the water table extends. If you drill a well into that accumulation
of water, you’ll get the stuff that is dissolved in it. The other substance
which will be released is arsenic, because the rock that contains uranium also
contains arsenic. If you crush it up, you release the arsenic, and it then
gets into the water and washes down and contaminates wells
UPdate: I’ve heard mining company representatives say we are already
exposed to uranium from our environment so mining would not change anything.
Is this true?
DM: The mining companies say, “Uranium is in the environment, and you
are being continuously exposed to all these products” That is absolutely
true. You are getting what is unavoidable. But when you start mining it and
grinding up the rock and distributing this extra radioactivity into the environment,
you increase the dose. So you can’t eliminate it, we are exposed to radiation
on a continuing basis, and we live in a province that has radioactive material
in the soil. But there is no justification for increasing it.
There is no safe level of radiation. It is a linear response. If you double
the radiation exposure, you double the cancer risk. It’s as simple as
that. And that is what happens when you make a uranium mine, you double your
radiation exposure. It doesn’t compute that people feel that the economic
benefit of opening a mine justifies the creation of additional lung cancers
and genetic defects lasting tens of thousands of years.
UPdate: Why do you, as a physician, feel uranium mining should be banned completely
in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick?
DM: The simple approach is that all radiation is bad for you and there is a
linear relationship. The more radiation you get, the more cancers you get,
the more chromosome breaks you get, the more fertility issues and so on, and,
uranium mining releases radioactivity, period. And it does so for tens of thousands
The BC Med Assoc took position against uranium mining. In 1985, Doctors NS
took a position against uranium mining. Uranium hasn’t changed in that
Basically, as Judge McCleave said, you get jobs for 10 years, but you are left
with radioactive waste for 10,000 years. It doesn’t make any rational
sense at all.
UPdate, Fall 2008, Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia
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Radon: Invisible health threat in the home