State health officials reopen Juliette uranium survey

hduncan@macon.comNovember 15, 2012 

The Georgia Department of Public Health has reopened a public survey first issued in February, seeking to gather more information from Monroe County residents about health problems they’ve experienced that might be related to uranium or radon exposure.

The survey is available online and at several locations in Monroe County, and it must be completed and returned by Dec. 15.

Many Juliette residents have found unsafe levels of radioactive uranium and radon in their well water, or elevated radon levels in the air of their homes. Digesting uranium can cause kidney dysfunction, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Airborne radon, which can seep into homes through tiny cracks in the foundation, is the second-leading cause of lung cancer and is the leading cause among nonsmokers, the EPA says.

More than 50 people filled out the surveys in February and March, and initially Jane Perry, director of the chemical hazards program in the state public health department, called the response rate “very good” and said survey results would be available in July. She also said the survey would be reopened from July to September to gather more data. Perry said early analysis showed no clusters of illnesses or symptoms, except for almost half of respondents having high blood pressure.

But a few months later, public relations officials for the department said the initial survey results had not been analyzed because the response rate was not high enough to be statistically significant.

Communications director Ryan Deal said Thursday the department initially was pleased with the number of surveys returned.

“Originally the number of service results were impressive to our environmental health team,” he said. “As we began to analyze those, we were able to come to a belief that the issues occurring in that area were occurring naturally, but it was not conclusive. And to make it conclusive, we needed more data, which quite simply is why we reopened the survey.”

Public health officials have said uranium and its byproducts occur naturally in the rocks of the Piedmont region. But some residents have voiced concern about whether the huge unlined coal ash pond at nearby Plant Scherer, a coal-fired power plant operated by Georgia Power, might be contributing to the uranium contamination.

Deal said the survey was not reopened until Nov. 15 because “it was important to us to do it at the right time when we felt we could gather the most responses,” after running an advertisement in a local newspaper and updating their website to make it easier to find the survey.

“This has got to be a very deliberate process,” he said. “Health issues are very sensitive.”

Survey respondents are asked to give their names and addresses, but identifying information will not be included in the health department’s reports, according to a news release issued by the department.

The survey requests information about water test results, personal history in the home, environmental concerns and personal health history.

The survey states that health officials are seeking a 70 percent return rate among surveys distributed in December and indicates that the results will be available in January. The results will be used to develop a health education program in the spring, the survey indicates.

Donna Welch, whose family found that its air and water contained high levels of uranium and radon, encouraged many people to fill out surveys last winter.

“It has been frustrating to me because I’ve said they’d be putting the survey back out and making arrangements to get it to people, and months later there’s nothing,” she said. “I know these things take time, but I do not know why it has gone so slowly.”

She said residents who sent water samples for further radionucleide testing at an EPA lab over the summer are still awaiting those results, too.

“We were told the EPA results would be back by the end of October, and here it is the middle of November,” Welch said. “And that bothers me, too.”

Deal said the public health department has received a limited number of these test results, which so far indicates naturally occurring uranium. Once all the results are in, the department will conduct a full analysis, he said.

Surveys may be filled out at www.dph.ga.gov/survey or may be obtained at the Rum Creek Store, 8703 Ga. 87, Juliette, or at the Monroe County Cooperative Extension Office at 90 Martin L. King Jr. Drive in Forsyth. They can also be obtained by calling Pamela Noah, public health consultant, at (404) 657-6532.

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