AS UMESH Bhana was snipping customers’ hair this week, he had a novel proposal for them: would they be willing to donate 4cm locks to be analysed for traces of uranium?
None of his clients at the Kut-loose hair and beauty salon in Lenasia said no. Bhana’s salon is in one of eight mining areas deemed to be at risk of uranium pollution.
These include Azaadville, Kagiso Rietvallei- in the Upper Wonderfonteinspruit Catchment Area – Mindalore and Diepkloof in Soweto.
The Federation for a Sustainable Environment, under the supervision of North West University, is collecting hair samples from salons in these areas as part of a pioneering pilot study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organisation that researches the causes of cancer.
The agency is probing whether uranium pollution may be linked to the development of cancers in gold mining areas on the Witwatersrand. It aims to uncover whether uranium enters the body and reaches elevated levels that can be detected in hair samples.
“Hair is a good indicator of past contact with uranium,” explains Dr Joachim Schuz, the agency’s head of environment and radiation.
“The objective is to understand the exposure to uranium and its decay products of (people) living close to gold mine tailing dumps.
“These residue areas are often densely populated.”
The problem of uranium contamination is huge: the Witwatersrand has 20 times more uranium dumps than the US and Canada combined. In Gauteng, more than 1.6 million people live next to toxic mine tailing dumps.
There has been little epidemiologic research into the exposure of these populations and their risk of cancer and other health outcomes, says Schuz.
“This pilot should be critical in opening the door to further research to assist governmental authorities in putting in place the best possible strategies to prevent uranium contamination in the affected areas.”
The federation has so far collected 300 samples from the eight high-risk communities around Joburg.
Professor Frank Wintle, the head of the mine water research group at North West University; has developed maps to identify the areas in which ‘ people are likely to be exposed to high levels of uranium.
Mariette Liefferink, the federation’s chief executive, says the study is long overdue. “There has been no causal link established between the anecdotal evidence of mental retardation, cancer, nephrotoxicity and the uniferous mine residual deposits in the Witwatersrand gold fields.
“There’s an urgent and pressing need to establish, whether such a link exists . . . The pilot study will be of value only if the findings and recommendations are implemented in the service of society.”
The control sites are salons in Laudium, Lenasia, Alexandra and Randburg.
At Hair Lusions in Ferndale, stylist Sharyn Goldman has collected 70 samples.”It’s a privilege to help humanity. Hair keeps everything that goes into the body- drugs, antibiotics. It’s like rings on a tree.”