Rössing Queries Cancer Report Claims

RIO Tinto’s Roumlssing Uranium is questioning claims made in a study by the Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade project ( EJOLT) on low-level radiation of its workers since the mine was commissioned in the 1970s.

The study was based on 44 questionnaires completed by current and former workers of Roumlssing, to establish a connection between occupational exposure to low-level radiation and toxicity, and their health conditions.

According to the report (a copy of which is in the possession of The Namibian), no safety and health policies were in place when Roumlssing started production of uranium in 1976.

Of the 44 workers questioned, 39 complained of health problems. Many have complained about the tough working conditions causing them back pain, breathing, hearing and visual problems.

Most of the complainants are operators of heavy equipment. The biggest problem, however, is said to be the constant exposure to dust.

Although current safety measures are high and the workers are trained on a regular basis and undergo refresher courses once a year, some still confuse dust with radiation and believe wearing protective equipment protects them from radiation, the report states.

Only four workers said they don’t know anyone being sick because of working at the mine. The older workers said they know miners who died of cancer and other diseases, mainly after retirement. These are workers who started working at the mine in the 70s and early 80s “when safety conditions were non-existent or very poor”.

“The questionnaires confirm that many of these workers are by now retired and many have already died of cancer or unknown diseases,” said the report.

One of those questioned claimed that doctors were told not to inform workers of their health conditions, and that the mine would blame bad health on unhealthy lifestyles such as eating habits, smoking and alcohol.

“This study unambiguously demonstrates that the workers pay a high price for the benefit of working with the giant mining company Rio Tinto. Most workers stated they would rather not work at Roumlssing Uranium Mine but had no other choice – they needed to earn a living and support their families, indicating the vulnerability of their position,” according to the report.

The report recommends that a large-scale epidemiology study with independent medical experts should be performed to examine the workers who started working in the 70s or early 80s that the Ministry of Health and Social Services get unrestricted access to all medical reports of all workers employed by Roumlssing and that all mineworkers likewise should be able to have access to their own medical reports.

But the mine’s managing director, Werner Duvenhage, denied any knowledge of workers who have experienced or are experiencing health problems.

“Roumlssing is not aware of any medical evidence of widespread health issues for our current or former employees and the company has always regarded the health and safety of employees as a priority, since the start of its operations in 1976,” Duvenhage told The Namibian last week.

He said that during the lifetime of the mine, health and safety measures have been in place based on international best practice and applications at the time.

“All employees have access to their medical records through a medical service provided by a professional medical team, and employees are aised to also consult their private medical specialists to ensure that they are knowledgeable about their health status,” he said.

Duvenhage also said any occupational-related illnesses are recorded and reported to the health ministry, while lifestyle illnesses statistics are kept as part of the company’s wellness programme tracking.

He added that effective controls ensure that radiation exposures to employees are kept well below the Roumlssing standard, which is equal to international standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“Over the years, Roumlssing has been recognised by independent consultants as one of the world’s safest mines. It has been used as a model for others, as the radiation, safety, occupational health and medical surveillance programmes at Roumlssing Uranium meets or exceeds accepted norms for this type of industry. We are yet to receive a copy of the report in question and will study it when we do,” Duvenhage concluded.

Bertchen Kohrs of Earthlife Namibia said the report still had to be released in Namibia since this one “is not yet final”.

“We have to wait and see what the reaction of Roumlssing will be,” she said.

Source : The Namibian