"The health effects of uranium really haven't been studied since the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb in the early 1940s). But now there is more interest in the health effects of depleted uranium. People are asking questions now," Stearns said.
The questions include whether there is a connection between exposure to depleted uranium and Gulf War Syndrome or to increased cancers and birth defects in the Middle East. Stearns said it is estimated that more than 300 tons of depleted uranium were used during the first Gulf War. Military uses of depleted uranium in weapons continue today.
Closer to home, questions continue to be asked about environmental exposure to uranium from mine tailings that dot the landscape across the Navajo Nation.
"When the uranium mining boom crashed in the '80s, it really crashed and there wasn't much cleanup," Stearns said. Estimates put the number of abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation at more than 1,100.
NAU senior Hertha Woody grew up on the Navajo Nation in Shiprock, N.M. Before joining Stearns' research group, Woody said she was not very aware of heavy metal contamination of soil and water from a large uranium tailing pile near her hometown. But now she wonders about the ongoing health problems of her uncle who worked in the uranium mine at Shiprock. And she worries about others living in the area.
"My parents still live there and drink the water," she noted.
There's another Navajo word that Woody shares. It is hozho, which relates to harmony, balance and beauty. Woody explained that the yellow monster disrupts hozho and that uranium should remain in the ground to ensure balance. In fact, in the spring of 2005, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr., signed the Din Natural Resources Protection Act, which bans uranium mining and processin
Contact: Lisa Nelson
Northern Arizona University