In India, a Trail of Lethal Radiation

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How bad is radiation sickness? Just ask Gandharva, an 11-year-old boy in eastern India's Jadugoda region. He was born paralyzed and has a tumorous lump over his right eye. And ask his parents. I suggested that we should all commit suicide when Gandharva was born, says his mother, Kuni, who has to carry the boy everywhere. But my husband said we must live on to make up for sins in our previous life.
Although worlds away from industrialized Japan, India's Jadugoda provides chilling testimony to the risks of dabbling with nuclear materials. The once-wooded area is home to India's uranium mines, the fuel for the country's nuclear ambition. Ignored and abandoned, the 30,000 villagers whose fate it is to live nearby are falling victim at an alarming rate to apparent radiation-linked illnesses--and the government is neither taking the blame nor helping them.

The Uranium Corp. of India, the state-owned company that runs the mines, says it regularly conducts studies in the area and has found no signs of radiation disease. Officials say fears that local water supplies have been contaminated are unfounded and that radiation levels are well within the natural radiation background for eastern India. But Gandharva and scores of other villagers believe they carry the marks of living and working close to the three watery tailing ponds--open-air rubbish dumps--where waste from the mines and a uranium processing plant is deposited.

Environmental activists say the contamination may have entered the food chain through crops and animals growing and grazing in areas where the unprotected tailing ponds flood into the surrounding countryside during monsoon rains. Trees around the ponds are misshapen and wildlife has disappeared.

According to an unofficial survey by the Jharkhand Organization Against Radiation, a local pressure group, children in the 15 villages surrounding the Jadugoda mine complex show signs of genetic mutation. During the 32 years the complex has been operating, 35% of all children born in the area have had some deformity, says the group's leader, Ghanshyam Biruli; many others have died at birth. Incidences of sterility, menstrual disorders and miscarriages among adult women have also been unusually high, the group says. Some 60% of workers over the age of 50 in the mines and tailing ponds were discovered to be affected by at least one of several health problems: blood disorders, bone, kidney or brain damage, cancer, paralysis, tuberculosis, nausea. For 20 to 30 years, we thought we were suffering from an ancient curse, says Jagannath Soren, a trade-union leader. Now we know why this is happening.

Concern over the casual dumping of contaminated waste prompted representatives from the upper house of Bihar's state legislature to investigate. Last December, a committee reported that waste with traces of radioactive material was being dumped into open drains when it should have been carried in pipes. Villagers and their animals had free and unchecked access to the area around the mines and the ponds. The committee also found that 31 of 712 people tested at random were suffering from various forms of radiation sickness.

Officials at the Uranium Corp. of India dismiss these claims. That the tailing ponds are unfenced and in some cases less than 500 m from the villages is not considered hazardous. We dispose of very low-grade waste here, and our procedures are well within established international practice, says acting chairman K. K. Beri. In Japan, officials similarly have argued that they follow proper procedure. Jadugoda is a stark reminder of what can happen when things go wrong.