Uranium: A Hidden Tragedy


Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in partnership with Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood:

Elsie Begay didn’t know her floor was killing her, because it was made of uranium waste. Uranium is a dangerous element that is radioactive and naturally occurs in soil in Utah and New Mexico, as we learned at an event at the University of Chicago in October 2010.

Like many Navajo, Begay didn’t know that uranium was in her backyard and that the radioactivity in her home was higher than it is supposed to be because of the uranium.

Most of the U.S.’s uranium is located under the feet of Navajos in Utah and New Mexico. Like gold and silver, it is mined from under the ground. But it is much more dangerous, since it is radioactive and causes cancer and other diseases.

The government created uranium mines to get the raw material for nuclear power, as journalist Judy Pasternak, filmmaker Jeff Spitz and Navajo activist Mary Begay explained at the University of Chicago event.

Spitz showed his film “Return of Navajo Boy,” which tells Begay’s story. At the event, Elsie’s daughter Mary Begay described how the uranium is all around them – in the floors and in the walls.

Uranium waste was actually used to build the house, and when she would go outside, she would bring uranium in. Elsie Begay had the Environmental Protection Agency investigate her home, and they found radiation levels way above what were safe.

They also found she had high levels of carbon monoxide, but they just told Elsie that everyone has carbon dioxide in their home, and not to worry about it, to get a carbon monoxide detector.

Ultimately, they had to tear Elsie’s house down to get rid of the waste.

At the University of Chicago event, attendees learned that uranium mines have destroyed many homes and communities. Mining of uranium has also destroyed areas sacred to Navajo and other people. In the film they talked about a red water pond, a special place where people would go to feel the water. But the uranium mining blew up Red Pond.

When Spitz, a film professor at Columbia College, met Mary Begay, she told him her family members were uranium miners. She began to learn how dangerous uranium is, for workers and people in the areas around the mines. “So we took action,” Spitz said, showing the film and speaking to people around the country. The film shows a man returning to his home that he left as a child after his parents died from the effects of uranium.

Owen, a photojournalist and former history teacher at Englewood High School, said the presentation was just one reminder of a lot of unknown stories in American history that should be told.

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