The Florida phosphate industry figured prominently in the national media last week. And was, I am sure, not at all pleased to be the subject of so much attention – none of it favorable.
U.S. News & World Report had a major article headed “Sinkholes and stacks,” illustrated with a dismal and dramatic photo of the huge sinkhole which last year dropped four to six million cubic feet of contaminated, radioactive gypsum waste into the Floridan aquifer, which is the major source of drinking water in most of Florida.
U.S. News ran right down the list of phosphate horrors, so familiar to those of us who live in this part of the world, but little known in other parts of the country. The magazine made it painfully clear that phosphate mining in Florida, like coal mining in West Virginia, is strip mining, and it does the same unpleasant things to the land it mines and the people who live nearby.
Readers learned about slime ponds and gypsum stacks and sinkholes and dam breaks which spill acidic, contaminated slurry into rivers and lakes. They read about charges that phosphate mining changes natural water flow, that wetlands adjacent to mined areas are drying up, and that state officials believe phosphaters have slowed the recharge rate of the Floridan aquifer.
The magazine’s readers also learned, as you have known for years, that phosphate miners carry big clout in the state legislature, contribute heavily to state and local political causes, and have escaped all but the most casual regulation.
What I would suspect to be the least welcome portion of the story deals with radioactivity. U.S. News repeats the well-known fact that “Uranium released from the phosphate ore breaks down to produce radium, which contaminates the ground water, and radon gas, another carcinogen that is found in high concentrations in the soil of reclaimed mining areas…
“Some epidemiological studies suggest that lung cancer rates among nonsmoking men in the phosphate region are up to twice as high as the state average. Acute leukemia rates among adults are also double the state average…
“Gary Lyman, professor of medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Florida, and author of several studies, fears there may be long-term health threats posed from ground water and air polluted by waste-water ponds and gypsum stacks and from high levels of radon gas in homes built on reclaimed land.”
Last week’s second piece of bad news for the phosphate industry also was tied to radon. The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported the results of a study which said that radon seeping into homes may cause about 14,400 deaths from cancer each year in the United States and may be responsible for up to 30 percent of the cases of lung cancer among nonsmokers.
The report in the Journal analyzed results of 11 seperate studies of cancer among hard-rock miners who were exposed to radon while at work. Estimates of the dangers of lung cancer arising from exposure to much lower radon levels in dwellings were extrapolated from the figures for miners, and will surely be challenged by the industry as being far from solid, scientific proof of anything.
Indeed, the authors say the results should be interpreted with caution. But, this is by no means the first suggestion that there is a link between lung cancer and what could be considered low levels of radon. Professor Lyman is quoted in the U.S. News article to the effect that it could be up to 20 years before people now being exposed to low-level radiation from gypsum stacks or from homes built on reclaimed land will start getting cancers, and by then it will be hard to track the cancers to their source.
But, there is no totally harmless level of radiation, and exposure is cumulative. State and federal regulators, scientists and environmental gadflies, most notably ManaSota-88, can and do argue about “acceptable” levels, but the only true desirable radiation level is zero, which is attainable probably nowhere on this Earth or in the universe.
What you will not learn from either U.S. News or The Journal of the National Cancer Institute is why there is a natural and unavoidable connection between phosphate mining and radioactive material. It is because phosphate and uranium were laid down at the same time and in the same place by the same geological processes millions of years ago. They go together. Mine phosphate, you get uranium. Not a lot, but enough so that several years ago it was profitable to refine and concentrate the uranium in the phosphate processing waste and sell it to some of the same firms buying “yellowcake” from uranium producers.
The story on the radon report I read was from the Associated Press, which means it was widely distributed and printed around the country. The only readers that can make a difference, however, are those live and vote in Florida and who will remember to discuss the health implications of phosphate mining with their legislators next year.
Chances are you are just such a person.