What are they?
Uranium is a natural, radioactive element that is mined from the earth. It is extracted from ore by a process called milling. Uranium tailings are the radioactive, sand-like materials left over from uranium milling. Uranium tailings are placed in mounds called tailings piles, which are located close to uranium mills.
Demand for uranium has declined due to a lack of demand for new nuclear power plants and increased uranium imports from other countries. Most of the 26 licensed U.S. uranium mills no longer process uranium.
Why are they a concern?
When uranium mining ceased, many mining companies abandoned mines without sealing tunnel openings, filling pits, or removing uranium tailings. Uranium tailings and waste produce radiation that can harm people who are around them for a long period.
Tailings can also contaminate surface water or groundwater that may be used for drinking water. People who live near uranium mines may have an increased risk of kidney disease. Large amounts of uranium in drinking water can react with the tissues in the body and damage the kidneys.
There is one abandoned tailings pile in Pennsylvania. All the other tailings piles in the United States are in the West or Southwest. Lands in the Four Corners area (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado) of the Southwest are rich in uranium. From 1944 to 1986, uranium was extracted from these lands. At least 520 abandoned sites remain throughout the area today. They continue to expose people living nearby to radioactive waste. Dust from the tailings piles can be blown away from the original site, and then breathed in by people nearby.
Who is at risk?
People who live near active or abandoned uranium mines are at risk.
What pollutants are of greatest concern?
- Uranium tailings and uranium waste contain radium, which decays to produce radon, an invisible and odorless radioactive gas. Radon causes lung cancer, according to the National Toxicology Program.
- Uranium tailings and waste produce gamma radiation. Gamma rays are penetrating electromagnetic radiation that involves the decay of atomic nuclei. Gamma rays are used to kill cancer cells, to clean medical equipment, and in radioactive tracers.
- Tailings may also contain:
- Selenium – An element existing naturally in soil that can be toxic if swallowed or absorbed at length.
- Thorium – A natural element that gives off radiation. Some rocks in underground mines contain thorium in a more concentrated form.
Reduce your risk
- Do you live near active or abandoned uranium mines or mills?
- Do you use well water?
- Do you live near a dam that holds uranium tailings?
- Routinely check your well water for pollution and radiation.
- If your well water has high levels of pollution or radiation, contact your local or state health agency. Ask these agencies for information on how to reduce your exposure.
- If your well water contains chemical levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water advisory levels, consider using bottled water for drinking and cooking. You can also use an activated carbon filtration system or reverse osmosis system.
- Do not go in or near active or abandoned mines.
- Never allow children to play or go in or near active or abandoned mines.
National Library of Medicine Resources and Databases
- Radiation Protection (Environmental Protection Agency)
- Uranium. ToxFAQs (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)
- Understanding Exposure and Health Effects: Uranium and Human Health (New Mexico Environmental Department and Department of Health)
- Mine Tailings (University of Arizona)