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In the Media

Never mind depleted uranium, the farms are full of the hot stuff

By Peter Ravenscroft
May 24, 2009 in Health
Rock phosphates are so high in un-depleted uranium that several mines are on offer as uranium deposits. Morocco is the largest world exporter and its phosphate is in that list. Europe and Japan have male fertility problems, and both use Moroccan phosphate
This article is in part based on guesswork, as is so much of science. A lot of careful checking and sampling of food and farms and folk with fertility problems needs to be done But the input data used for this report can all be found on the net. by googling about for a few days. So, judge for yourself. I am a geologist and an organic subsistence farmer and not a medic, a further caution, just so you know the biases and don't have to guess. Anyway, here is the story as I see it, so far:
There has been a huge fuss about the health and pollution problems that have arisen in Eastern Europe, as the result of the use by NATO of depleted uranium shells in Kosovo (9 tonnes admitted to) and Serbia (3 tonnes admitted). But, coming in under the radar, those of us who live in the rich world may have a far larger problem with radioactivity. Our farmers are tipping huge quantities of uranium onto most of the fields that grow our food. It comes as a freebie with the phosphate fertilisers we make from marine rock phosphates.
We are a bit short of phosphate deposits worldwide, and unlike oil and coal, there is no substitute at all for phosphorus in agriculture. It is central to photosynthesis and a shortage of it is the usual limit on all life forms.The normal background level for uranium in soils worldwide is about 2 parts per million (ppm) .Marine rock phosphates run at averages of about 50ppm to 120 ppm, with some organic phosphate deposits from Russia and nearby running at a rather warmish 600 ppm. The phosphate rocks pick the uranium up, over millions of years, from the passing groundwater. Uranium and phosphates just love each other, and so bond enthusiastically whenever they meet.
In case you think "huge quantities" as used above, is just the usual journalistic hype, I will give you a single figure to think about. According to the IAEA, (that is, the International Atomic Energy Agency), a regrettable waste in their view is that, at a conservative estimate, some 3,700 tonnes of hot uranium (un-depleted uranium, that is) is being lost to the nuclear industry and the arms dealers of the world, every year. That is how much they say could be extracted from the rock phosphate that now goes to make such fertilisers as super phosphate and triple super phosphate, if their industry was a little less slack. If the price of uranium went up, it could be leached out and saved, and though that was done in the past, it is not being done now. I leave it to you to decide if 3,700 tonnes of uranium spread over farm fields is a huge number or not. But for comparison, Little Boy, the bomb that spoiled life or cancelled it for so many people in Hiroshima, weighed 4,000 kilograms - four tonnes. There is another IAEA estimate that gives 7,500 tonnes of uranium going onto the world's farmlands, so if we say there is 4,000 tonne of it, given that commercial extraction would not get the lot anyway, that is probably a fair claim.
So, we are putting a neat 1,000 Hiroshima bombs-worth of uranium onto our farm fields, globally, every year. And it is mostly mostly not staying in the soil. It is leaching out into the groundwater and some is being picked up by plants and is going into our food. Soil fungi that live in intimate relationships with plant roots, called microrhyzae, pick it up very enthusiastically. Root crops like potatoes and beets pick it up too.
Does anyone live on groundwater? Here is a short quote on that from the organisation Hydrologists Without Borders
"Globally groundwater is estimated to provide about 50 percent of current potable water supplies, 40 percent of the demand of self-supplied industry and 20 percent of water use in irrigated agriculture.
In developing countries, the proportion of people who depend on groundwater for potable water supply is generally much higher than the global average and can reach as high as 80-100% (e.g. Central America and Caribbean). The case of India is worthy of specific mention since groundwater directly supplies about 80 percent of domestic water supply in rural areas, with some 2.8 to 3.0 million hand-pump boreholes having been constructed over the past thirty years."
From that report one might guess that, if the link to male infertility suggested here is correct, then India may shortly experience declining fertility and pregnancy rates, if they use their new wealth to import more phosphate fertilisers But, since the government an nuclear industry there is already planning to extract all the uranium it can from the fertilisers they mine or import, for their civilian reactors and their nuclear bombs, maybe they will neatly side-step the problem.
Japanese farmers have in some cases used about six times more phosphate fertiliser than they needed to, judging by the amounts found unused in farm fields. And, the anaerobic or oxygen-free conditions in wet rice paddy fields are perfect for uranium uptake, with brown rice being found to be more radioactive than white rice. So it must be in the husks that get polished off, the first sign of any rational reason why humans should eat white rice, that I have ever heard of. . Anyway, one medical study, some years back found that most young Japanese men have sperm counts that are below the WHO minimum levels for healthy populations. The terrible irony may be that it is again uranium that is their county's' problem. And that this time it is far worse and coming at them from their rice, fruit and vegetables..
So, why might uranium be a problem?. Well, Swiss researchers found that at all uranium dosage levels, after 64 days, male mice still formed as many sperm as before but when mated, the pregnancy rates were way down. And sixty- four days is a somewhat shorter period than, say, 20 years, which is about how long most men are being dosed, before they try to start having kids. The uranium bonds to ATP, a critically important macro-molecule in every cell, and then the uranium's radioactive decay damages the DNA ,seems to be the story.
Which pathway to food and sperm is being taken by uranium in Western Europe, if that is the problem there also, I do not know, but it may be via dairying. The Danes seem to have the most serious problem, and they eat more dairy products than most. Western Europe gets by far the bulk of its rock phosphate from Morocco. And the Belgians manage to extract 600 tonnes of uranium from their fertiliser, before they stopped supplying information about the enterprise, or shut it down.
Lest Americans feel safe, the deposits there, mainly in Florida, also have a fair bit of the hot stuff. There used to be eight plants extracting uranium there, from rock phosphate. There are no figures fro tonnages that I have been able to find. So, that uranium is now going onto the food growing fields and into the groundwater. And American male fertility rates are down on past levels.
Keep in mind that the link between uranium on the farmlands and in the water and male infertility is just my personal guess. But something is causing that problem and it has a good chance of being chemical and agriculture-based.
What's to do? There are four processes for getting the uranium out of rock phosphate, all expensive. But the good news is, Syrian researchers have a cheap method of doing it, by fine-grinding and the use of sodium bicarbonate. If the uranium can be extracted, maybe it can all go for innocuous thinks like medical uranium. I have a deep distrust of civilian reactors, see Chernobyl for a reason. But that is just my bias, of course billions do not agree. And some curious folk think nuclear bombs are a wonderful idea and others yet, think the biosphere will be much happier when we have nuked ourselves and let the cockroaches take over. We have to think about it, if this problem is real. I have emailed the WHO and one or two national health ministers, and Greenpeace and such. Dead silence, so far, surprise, surprise.
A final note to round this off. IAEA figures put Morocco's uranium resources in phosphate deposits at around six million tons, which corresponds to twice the world's resources in uranium deposits. Their words, not mine.
Watch this space, since you probably read it here first, on Digital Journal. This story is just starting, I think. Good luck all.
PS: I am not the Peter Ravenscroft who is a geologist and who has done so much fine work on arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. He is entirely innocent this time. He works from Cambridge, a small town in England, I believe. I work from the far better-known village of Closeburn, In Queensland, Oz.
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