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Uranium

Uranium is a weakly radioactive heavy metal that occurs naturally. Rocks, soil, surface and ground water, air, plants, and animals (including humans) all contain varying amounts of uranium.
Some geographical regions of the United States, particularly southwestern states such as New Mexico, have concentrated natural deposits of uranium and extensive historic uranium ore mining and milling activities. For these reasons, some areas may have higher than average uranium levels, which may result in increased human exposure.
The primary way people are exposed to uranium is through ingesting drinking water and food, especially root vegetables grown in uranium-containing soil. Most of the ingested uranium in drinking water or food leaves the human body, but some may go into the bloodstream and then to the bone and various internal organs such as the liver and kidneys, where it can be stored for many years.

Common sources of uranium related to drinking water and food include:
  • Some foods, especially root vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips, turnips, and sweet potatoes grown in soils with high concentrations of uranium.
  • Internal organs of livestock raised in areas with high levels of uranium in the rocks, soil, and water.
  • Some drinking water sources, especially in areas known to have high levels of uranium in the rocks and soil.
  • Certain older ceramic or porcelain glazed cookware and food storage containers.
Uranium has many commercial uses, including nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel, X-ray agents, pigments for the ceramic industry, coloring porcelain, enameling, and in production of fluorescent glass. People may be exposed in certain jobs, such as those involving the mining and processing of uranium ore.

Common sources of uranium related to occupations include:
  • Water, soil and dust in areas near uranium mining, processing, and manufacturing facilities.
  • Some phosphate fertilizers.
In areas with naturally-occurring high levels of uranium, the presence of indoor radon is another potential health concern. Bathing and showering with water that contains radon gas dissolved in it, or living in a home with high levels of radon gas may be a health concern because inhalation of this gas may result in the development of lung cancer. Learn more about radon here
There are some possible health concerns related to the kidney from excessive exposure to uranium. The kidney is the most sensitive organ for uranium toxicity. Some studies have shown small changes in the way kidneys work when people drink water with large amounts of uranium for a long time (usually more than 2-5 years). These changes, however, seem to go away when people stop drinking this water with high-levels of uranium.

How Common Are Kidney Health Concerns?

We do not know how common kidney problems related to uranium exposure are among the general population of the state. Furthermore, we cannot determine with available data what level of exposure to uranium would cause these problems to develop.
There are practical steps you can take to minimize your exposure to uranium.
  • Check your drinking water. If your water comes from a private well, and you live in an area with known uranium in the soil, have the drinking water tested for uranium. If uranium levels are high, consider various treatment/filtration options, or consuming water from a different source. (If your water comes from a public water supply, it will regularly be tested for uranium). Learn about drinking water quality and treatment options.
  • Always wash fruits and vegetables. It is recommended that you peel and discard the outside portion of root vegetables.
  • Watch what your children put in their mouths. Parents should discourage their children from eating dirt which could contain uranium and other harmful particles such as lead paint chips.
  • If you work with uranium, take precautions. Avoid bringing uranium-containing dust home on your clothing, skin, hair, or tools. Wash or shower at your worksite if that is an option. Do not wash your work clothes with your family's regular laundry. Remove your shoes before entering your house.
  • Test for Radon. Consider testing your home for indoor radon gas through New Mexico's low-cost test program. Learn more.
Uranium in urine at a level greater than 0.08 ?g/L is a notifiable condition in New Mexico and must be reported to the New Mexico Department of Health Environmental Health Epidemiology Bureau by a lab or health facility that ordered the lab. A notifiable condition or disease means a disease or condition of public health importance required by 7.4.3.12 New Mexico Administrative Code to be reported to the New Mexico Department of Health.

Labs and medical facilities may send lab reports via secured fax to: 505-827-2110, Attn: EHEB.
For guidance, please call 1 888-878-8992.

There are medical tests that can determine whether a person has been exposed to excessive amounts of uranium. Urine testing for uranium is the recommended standard test. Because most uranium leaves the body in urine within a few days of exposure, a urine test will show whether there was exposure to a larger-than-normal amount within the last week or so. Elevated urine-uranium levels will indicate uranium exposure but do not necessarily indicate health problems.
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Content updated: Fri, 24 Mar 2017 17:11:02 MDT