Will I die from contamination?
April 3, 2012 11:32 AM   Subscribe

I lived in a neighborhood whose water was contaminated by uranium from a local power plant. Could it have affected me?

I was checking out the news last weekend, and CNN had a report about a coal power plant causing various types of cancer in neighborhood residents.

According to the report, uranium from coal ash leaked into the local water table, and local residents drinking well-water have been getting cancer frequently.
I lived in this neighborhood for over 6 years, directly behind the ash pond, drinking water from the well, and while I'm not sick yet, I'm now worried that in the future I may develop problems from this time.

YANMD, but if you are a doctor, what is the possibility of falling ill from my years of drinking this stuff. What should I look out for? Is there any way to test if I've been affected now?

Bonus question: If I find in the future that I develop certain cancers, is there anyway to prove liability, or am I just screwed?

Relevant link
posted by Monkeyswithguns to Health & Fitness (10 answers total)
Is there any way to test if I've been affected now?

Well, in the article you linked, it discusses some of the people getting hair tests to check for uranium. In a quick online search, it sounds like there are a lot of people who don't agree with that method, but it's out there. Perhaps you can check with your doctor and ask if there is a way to check for uranium in your system?
posted by juniperesque at 11:51 AM on April 3, 2012

What should I look out for?

If you have a primary care physician, a good thing to do would be to go in for a complete physical (to establish a baseline) and discuss your concerns. He or she can probably recommend additional tests and things to watch for. I'm not sure if anyone can tell you the probability of falling ill.

Bonus question: If I find in the future that I develop certain cancers, is there anyway to prove liability, or am I just screwed?

That's one for an attorney.
posted by jquinby at 11:57 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're unlikely to die from this.

From the CDC's Well Water Uranium site:
"Most ingested uranium is eliminated from the body. However, a small amount is absorbed and carried through the bloodstream to the various organs. Studies show that elevated levels of uranium in from any source, including drinking water, can increase a person's risk of kidney damage. The kidney is the most sensitive organ for damage by uranium.

Over time, drinking water that contains uranium can increase a person's estimated lifetime risk of cancer. However, uranium is not likely to cause cancer since it is mildly radioactive and has not been found to cause cancer in either humans or animals, even at very high doses over long periods of time."

Since the news reports mentioned increased cancer incidence, perhaps there was something else aside from just uranium in the water. There is no way to know exactly what your personal risk is, because it depends upon your personal exposure. You can have the well you drank from tested but since it sounds like this happened in the past, that may not be very helpful now. You can stop in to your doctor and they could do a urine dip to look for protein or a quick blood test to check your kidneys if they think it's warranted. I'd say if you focus more on eating healthy and living well, quitting smoking if you smoke, etc., you'll avoid things that are a lot more likely to affect your health than the uranium.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 12:00 PM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Speaking as someone who has lived in 3 nuclear towns, and also about a quarter of a mile from a coal-burning power plant...

Apparently Plant Scherer is one of the largest C02 emitters in the entire world, so the plant is on someone's radar. As a first step, you could contact a lawyer in Juliette to ask for advice. Here's a list.

Anyway, based on the CNN story, it seems that many of the residents experiencing ailments are older. The illnesses also seemed to start relatively quickly after they moved in.

On top of all that, Juliette appears to be ground zero for any number of environmental problems caused by the massive generating station, including smog, ash, and particulate matter. The aquifer as well seems to have naturally high concentrations of "uranium."

It would be nice to know what specific isotope is being found in hair, as well as the specific isotope that is being found in the water and in coal waste. Different isotopes do different things, and reside in different places in the body (unless they pass through the body), so that's key.

You appear to be healthy, and you no longer live in the neighbourhood. You may develop cancer, but you may not. Genetics plays a role, as does your overall health. You may get hit by a car.

But try talking to a lawyer in Juliette, or a local environmental organization in order to get more info.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:01 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am an environmental consultant. I'm not your environmental consultant. I'm also not a doctor. However, I can suggest where I'd start if I were in your situation: I'd get your well water tested.

In order to do that, I would start by calling Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) Drinking Water Program and your county's Environmental Health Department. Their numbers should be available by googling the names. One of these two departments should be able to tell you who to contact about testing your drinking water. Explain that you're concerned because you live near this plant -- they probably have heard from your neighbors with the same question.

I'd suggest doing this first. The fact that groundwater in your neighboorhood may be contaminated does not mean that *your* groundwater is contaminated. Find that out first. (And if your water is contaminated, getting a lab report that confirms that will establish a paper trail and give you a way to get the GA EPD involved with your well specifically.)

If you do have drinking water contamination, that's when you go talk to your doctor about how the specific levels and contaminants could affect your health, and what you can do about it.
posted by pie ninja at 12:02 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the link treehorn+bunny, that's some consolation.

I'm not quite ready to contact a lawyer just yet, but I'm going to be paying attention to any following reports, and asking some old neighbors and relatives what is going on since I've gone.
posted by Monkeyswithguns at 12:05 PM on April 3, 2012

Alas pie ninja, I no longer live in the neighborhood and don't have access to the well. I just spent several years there previously.
posted by Monkeyswithguns at 12:06 PM on April 3, 2012

Ack, sorry, I totally missed the fact that you no longer live there.

In that case, I'd call the GA EPD and ask how you go about getting well sampling reports for any wells near your former residence. They should be able to help you get those records.
posted by pie ninja at 12:07 PM on April 3, 2012

You should check to see if any class actions have been filed -- and I'd be surprised if they had not -- and keep tabs on their development. Generally, the statute of limitations would run from exposure to the toxin, not from when the harm developed, so it would be a secure your rights now by talking to a lawyer. There are some cases where increased risks have been covered by lawsuits (things like medical monitoring and future medical costs) but it is a tricky issue, so again, you'll need to consult good counsel.
posted by yarly at 12:12 PM on April 3, 2012

I agree that treehorn+bunny is looking at good medical information on the subject of Uranium in drinking water, and that it's not as dangerous as one thinks when one hears of a material that we know is radioactive.

But it does seem fishy that the company is sealing wells without residents being aware of exactly what was found in them. If I were you, I'd be curious whether your old residence was one of the 20 homes in the area with high concentrations of uranium tested by the University of Georgia researchers. I'd also be very curious to see what they were calling "high concentrations", and how those compare with standards. So if you can get access to the locations and concentrations in the University of Georgia study, that might help you know what your exposure was.

One thing to keep in mind is that usually it's Very Difficult to show that cancers have environmental causes (as is mentioned more than once in the article), and that if there is an environmental contaminant causing cancer it tends to be one kind of cancer, whereas folks in the article had multiple kinds. It's really easy for things like cancers to seem related, but the stats are actually that something like 1 in 5 Americans will have some sort of cancer in their lifetime, so when you start looking at a neighborhoods and cancer, it can get pretty confusing when you see all the cancers. Some state health departments have calculators to help determine whether the numbers of cancers in one area are statistically elevated, too.

At any rate, if you have a doctor, mention this at your next physical and ask to see if they think it's worthwhile to get your kidney or liver functions tested. But otherwise there is probably no way of knowing how or if your individual health was affected. The only thing you might be able to find out is whether your well water does/did have elevated levels of Uranium. Even you find that out, there doesn't sound like there's a good way of knowing how that has affected you, personally.

I'm sorry, this stuff is scary, precisely because it's so hard to know exactly what's going on. But you're doing the right thing in not panicking and trying to find out more.
posted by ldthomps at 12:56 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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