During last week's Flagstaff City Council meeting, many public comments focused on the potential health risks associated with uranium ore.
According to two local researchers who study the health impacts of uranium, those risks are small.
“In the grand scheme of things, transport of ore within the city is at the low end of risk,” said Diane Stearns, a professor of biochemistry and the associate vice president for research at Northern Arizona University, whose research focuses on how uranium causes cancer. Flagstaff residents who smoke, for example, or who spend too much time in the sun have a much higher risk of developing cancer, Stearns said.
The most health damage from uranium results from frequent exposures to a significant amount of the material, but that type of exposure tends to be in an occupational setting during uranium mining or processing of the ore, Stearns said.
Under circumstances where a person on the street might come into contact with a tiny amount of uranium ore on a very infrequent basis, the risk is much lower, she said. The average uranium content in the ore being hauled from Canyon Mine, for example, is estimated at 1.08 percent, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
As the director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program with the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, Chris Shuey studies the health impacts of uranium exposure on the Navajo Nation, where he has found things like an increased risk of chronic disease are linked to exposure to uranium and other radioactive materials from abandoned mines.
When it comes to the hauling of uranium ore through communities like Williams and Flagstaff and across the Navajo Nation, Shuey offered a similar assessment to Stearns.
“I don't want to sound like you would ever minimize an accident involving transportation of uranium ore, especially in an urban area, but the risks of exposure and therefore the health effects are pretty low,” Shuey said.
Shuey and Stearns also said people don’t have much to worry about if they would find themselves driving their car behind or next to a truck with a load of uranium ore.
“I would still argue hypothetically off the top of my head that driving in a car you would have a greater likelihood of getting in a car accident than getting cancer by sitting in a car next to a truck for a couple of minutes,” Stearns said. That radiation exposure would be less than getting an X-ray, she said.
Shuey too, said the increase in radiation in such a situation would be negligible.
Curtis Moore, spokesman with Canyon Mine owner Energy Fuels Resources, also brought up the need to evaluate the ore hauling in relation to other materials being transported along roads, highways and railways through town.
“People need to keep things in perspective. Natural uranium ore poses much lower risks than other substances commonly hauled on our public roads, including gasoline, diesel, chlorine, acid, and other chemicals,” Moore wrote in an email. “The public can be assured that our ore trucks will be operated safely and responsibly, and except for the required labeling, they will be essentially indistinguishable from other commercial trucks operating on the road every day.”