The World Health Organization is collecting hair samples west of Johannesburg to see if residents near South Africa’s biggest city are suffering from excessive uranium pollution due to ore dumps from 130 years of gold mining.
The Geneva-based United Nations unit will analyze hair samples from about 1,600 people living in neighborhoods near mine-waste dumps, mainly west of Johannesburg, it said in an e-mailed response to questions. Uranium, which can cause cancer, can be ingested through drinking contaminated water or inhaling dust.
“The objective is to study the environmental exposure to uranium and its decay products of the population living in close proximity to gold mine tailing dumps in and around Johannesburg,” the WHO said. “These residue areas are often densely populated and create the potential for substantial levels of exposure to uranium.”
Johannesburg was spawned by a gold rush when the metal was discovered in the 1880s with the Witwatersrand, the world’s biggest gold field, arcing around the south and west of the city.
While the country dominated global gold production for most of last century, production is now a fifth of what it was at its peak in about 1970. Output peaked at 7,295 metric tons in 1980, falling to 639 tons by 2006, according to the Chamber of Mines.
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