Open letter to the leaders of Nunavut
On the health implications of opening the territory to uranium mining
To: Members of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut
President and Board, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc.
President and Board, Qikiqtani Inuit Association
President and Board, Kivalliq Inuit Association
President and Board, Kitikmeot Inuit Association
Chairperson and Board, Nunavut Impact Review Board
Mayors and Health Committee Chairpersons
It has come to our attention that uranium mining interests are
proposing to construct an open-pit uranium mine, mill and attendant
infrastructure just 85 kilometres upwind and upwater from the
community of Baker Lake, Nunavut, and that approval of the Kiggavik
project would open the door to the construction of more uranium mines
in the region. Members of Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit have asked
us to comment on this.
We are both family doctors living in Ontario, and are members of
Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) and
Physicians for Global Survival (PGS). We are very concerned about
the health impacts of uranium mining on local populations. This
concern stems from our research, which was spurred by the prospect
of a uranium mine being located near Sharbot Lake in Eastern Ontario
— very close to the communities in which we live.
Uranium mining is an essential first step in nuclear power generation
and in the production of nuclear weapons. Each stage of these
processes creates its own burden of contamination. They are intimately
linked, in that the byproducts of power generation can be used to
create weapons. It is well known that India used power-generating
technology from Canada to produce material for its first nuclear bomb.
All operating nuclear power reactors release radioactive contaminants
into their surroundings on a regular basis, and there is as yet no
safe way to store the very highly radioactive spent fuel they produce.
Accidents occur both small and catastrophic that release toxic
radioactive substances into the environment essentially forever.
The destructive power of nuclear bombs is obvious. These are the
processes in which you are participating if you allow uranium mining
in your community.
Uranium mining itself causes significant environmental damage and is
potentially the most contaminating stage of nuclear power generation.
In mining uranium, thousands of tons of radioactive rock are brought
to the surface of the earth and crushed. This process creates a large
amount of radioactive dust and large quantities of waste rock or
tailings, which contain 85% of their original radioactivity. These,
along with the chemicals used in the extraction process, often strong
acids or alkalis, are deposited in large tailings ponds or
The toxic radioactive dust can be carried far away from the site by
wind. Radioactive radon gas (a potent lung carcinogen, and the second
most common cause of lung cancer after smoking) escapes continuously
from the exposed rock and the tailings. Toxic radioactive isotopes are
produced continuously for thousands of years by the tailings through
the process of radioactive decay, something which does not happen in
the tailings of mines for non-radioactive substances such as iron or
Mining interests will attempt to tell you that their “best practices”
will prevent the outflow of these contaminants into the local air,
soil and water. It has been our finding, in researching this issue and
in speaking with persons living near the former uranium mining sites
in Elliot Lake and Bancroft, Ontario that this is not the case.
What is the harm in all this material?
Harm occurs in a number of ways. Firstly, because uranium is a
radioactive substance, uranium atoms actually change into a series
of other substances one after the other as they fling off bits of
themselves in the form of radiation. This process is called radio-
active decay. Many of these substances are toxic in their own
right, as is uranium. Uranium is toxic to the kidney, and accumulates
in bone, including the bones of children. Radium, one of the progeny
of uranium’s radioactive decay, is toxic to bone. Radon causes lung
cancer, and lead affects the nervous system. Because there are so
many substances involved, and they are continually shifting from one
to the next, they are very difficult to contain. Some have half-lives in
the billions of years, meaning they are around forever.
The main danger common to all of them, however is their radioactivity
— the bits of radiation thrown off as the atoms decay from one
substance into another. All of this radiation is capable of damaging
tissue — plant, animal or human. There is no safe dose – in other
words, even small doses cause harm. Radioactive particles which have
entered the body through inhalation or ingestion, are particularly
harmful. Some of this damage the body can repair, but often the
repairs are imperfect. Over time, cancers can arise. Cancer is a well-
known sequella of exposure to radiation. It can often take decades,
sometimes 40 or 50 years to manifest itself, and there is no way of
knowing that it is developing until it does. It is very difficult
sometimes to trace it back to its origins; this is one reason that
poorly designed “studies” so often fail to show any harm from a given
exposure. It is important to remember that “no proof of harm” is not
the same as “proof of no harm”.
If the damage done by radiation involves the reproductive tissues, the
eggs and sperm, it can be passed on to the next generation (that is if
the mutation it causes is compatible with life, which most mutations
are not). In fact much of this damage will manifest as infertility,
reduced fertility, early miscarriage and early infant death. In the
human population some of these things may be detected. In the case
of animals, birds, fish and other living things, you may never know why
they are not thriving, or quietly disappearing. Their loss will
certainly never be recorded in any catalogue of “harm” caused by
uranium mining. Damaged offspring which survive can carry their
damage forward into succeeding generations. It is not reversible, and
it is cumulative as succeeding generations are exposed again to the
same contaminants remaining in the environment.
Radiation can damage any system or process in the body, by
interfering with the process itself or the genetic instructions which
control it. Visible malformations are the tip of the iceberg. Young
children and the unborn are extremely sensitive to such disruption
during the critical times when their bodies and vital organs develop.
Recent research from Germany has shown a clear increase in
childhood leukemia in children living near German nuclear reactors.
No research of such quality and scope has been done in Canada.
Mining interests and their supporters in government cannot argue that
the effects we have described do not occur. They are well known and
well described in the scientific world. The best they can argue is
that they do not matter, however you will have to decide that for
As family doctors, we have grave concerns about the Kiggavik uranium
mine proposal near Baker Lake. Such a mine would produce radioactive
tailings that would contaminate this pristine area essentially forever
and threaten all living organisms including humans. Many physicians
groups across the country support a moratorium on uranium mining in
their jurisdictions. These include the British Columbia Medical
Association, the Nova Scotia Medical Association, the Ontario College
of Family Physicians Environmental Health Committee, the physicians of
Sept-Iles, Québec, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the
Environment and Physicians for Global Survival. The International
Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which won the
Nobel Peace prize in 1985, is strongly opposed to uranium mining,
particularly on indigenous land.
As physicians, we would like to make politicians and policy-makers in
Nunavut aware of the deleterious health effects of uranium mining on
all living things, and to urge them to veto plans for this proposal.
We fervently hope that you will use this opportunity to say “no” to
uranium mining in your territory.
Cathy Vakil MD, CFCP, FCFP
Assistant Professor, Dep’t of Family Medicine
Linda Harvey, BSc, MSc, MD
McDonald’s Corners, Ontario