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Monday, November 19, 2012 - 2:10pm

Survey To Gauge Uranium Worries

The state Department of Health is encouraging Monroe County residents to fill out a health survey related to the higher-than-normal levels of uranium and radon that have been measured in the area.

But the results may not be what neighbors concerned about environmental toxins documented near the Plant Scherer coal-fired power plant in Juliette are hoping for.

The state believes the uranium and radon around Juliette is natural and not coming from the plant, though some vocal residents are skeptical about that. Regardless of the source, levels beyond what the EPA considers safe have been observed in the wells of 39 homes nearby.

Some people have complained of health problems consistent with uranium exposure, and the survey does ask about those, but it also asks, for example: "Are you worried about uranium in your well water?"

The main objective of the survey, said environmental health director Scott Uhlich, is to assess what the community is worried about and how worried they are, as opposed to whether or not they actually should be worried.

"It allows us to then kind of help message to them what their risk may be," Uhlich said.

The department first polled residents in February and March about their awareness of the issue and whether they’ve experienced any adverse effects, but received only about 50 responses from a county of more than 25,000 people.

Even if DPH is able to get more responses this time, any survey is unlikely to yield very useful results, said University of Iowa radon expert Bill Field.

"If you really want to do a health survey, first you have to find out what the exposures are," Field said, meaning that health officials must first investigate the concentration of radon or uranium in the water and air. "Then that could be compared to cancers and other illnesses occurring in the vicinity, but it's best not to use self-reported information, it's best to use hospital records," he said.

Some investigation into the prevalence of uranium has been conducted by scientists from the University of Georgia, and Uhlich said DPH is analyzing data from healthcare providers to look for patterns of illness consistent with uranium or radon exposure, but no conclusions have been drawn as of yet.

Uhlich himself said a survey isn't the best way to find out if people are actually getting sick from environmental toxins. Rather, he said, the function of this survey is to inform the design of a new public awareness campaign about the prevalence and risk of radon and uranium.

"What we’re hoping is people will become more aware of the issue and take steps to protect their health and their family's health," Uhlich said.

DPH is accepting completed surveys now through the end of 2012. The survey states an objective of receiving a 70 percent response rate, but it is unclear how many responses that would represent, since the survey is not being sent directly to any targeted group.