Uranium mine deposits trigger concern

ABANDONED uranium mines in Portugal could be jeopardising the health of the local population, according to environmental experts.

The most worrying situation is in the mines of Urgeiriça, where waters containing radioactive materials are emptied into a tributary of the Mondego. This river supplies various areas including the university city of Coimbra.

Maria de Lurdes Cravo, director of the environmental association Quercus, has expressed concern. “I consider that the people of Coimbra have good quality water in general, but there is a growing concern that they could be exposed to unknown levels of radioactivity,” she says. She adds that an effective strategy is required to monitor possible radioactive deposits in the water.

Fátima Coimbra, from Águas de Coimbra, the company that supplies water to 160,000 people, said that the most recent test results (pertaining to 2004) only reached her last week. The official said that radioactive values, although above zero, were below danger limits. But she also cited the “lack of capacity of national laboratories”, complaining that they only present results six months late. She admitted that precise and up to date radioactivity readings for the water are unknown.

For more than 90 years, radioactive materials were explored in uranium mines. The last such mine closed in 1999. But accumulated waste deposits, resulting from the treatment of uranium, continue to threaten the area and pollute the air.

In Urgeiriça alone, there are four million tonnes of residual solids resulting from the uranium industry, occupying an 11-hectare area. And the problem is not just confined to water. Radioactive particles are also raised by the wind and can affect the health of the surrounding population.

In 2002, the Ministry of Health ordered the National Health Observatory and other institutions to investigate the effect of uranium mines on local communities. José Marinho Falcão, from the Ricardo Jorge Institute, the body entrusted with the probe, says the study is not yet complete.

Studies carried out in other countries have linked exposure to radioactive materials with an increase of cases of cancer and genetic deformations as well as alterations to renal functions.