The Georgia Department of Public Health is developing a Monroe County survey related to uranium and radon contamination.
The responses from residents will be used to evaluate whether there are elevated rates of illness in the community that might be caused by the naturally occurring radioactive element or from the radon produced when uranium decays.
Jane Perry, program director for the department’s chemical hazards program, said the surveys of residents’ health and environmental concerns probably will be distributed the first week in February, with results available near the end of March.
The survey will be posted online and also will be available at public gathering places and community events, she said. It will be mailed to community leaders and local agencies that might have a role in health or environmental services.
Uranium occurs in some rocks and soils of Georgia’s Piedmont region. During the past year, some Monroe County residents have found high levels of uranium and radon in their well water. Some also have found unsafe levels of radon in the air of their homes.
Digesting uranium that has leached into water eventually 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 non-smokers, the EPA says.
About 530 Monroe County homeowners have tested their water for uranium through the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, said Dana Lynch, county extension agent. About 71 had detectable levels of uranium, and 32 had more than the EPA considers safe, she said.
Lynch said elevated uranium levels seem to be concentrated in the area between Juliette and Bolingbroke. Perry said the community survey will target the Juliette area, but will be distributed throughout the county.
The cooperative extension office also has provided 170 Monroe County residents with test kits for airborne radon. But because those results come directly to the homeowner, Lynch doesn’t know how many were elevated. She said a dozen people have contacted her after learning their airborne radon levels are high.
A growing number of residents also have found radon in their water, she said. Radon in water is mostly a problem because it can enter the air as steam during bathing, cleaning and cooking.
Three homes in the same general area had extremely high levels of uranium in their water, Lynch said.
One of those belongs to Donna Welch, who has asked Monroe County officials to run water lines to the area so residents don’t have to choose between drinking unsafe water or treating it at considerable expense. Welch said she has unsafe levels of radon in both her water and her home’s air.
Welch tested her water last summer as she sought potential causes for unexplained liver problems and neuropathy, a loss of sensation, in her feet. Since getting the results, her family has stopped drinking or cooking with their well water, and Welch says she has felt better for longer periods.
She is very interested in what might be learned from the state health study.
“I really want people to participate in this community survey,” she said.
In her conversations with affected homeowners, she has spoken with others who have neuropathy, as well as multiple people with fibromyalgia and kidney problems, she said.
Perry said at least 30 people must complete the community health survey for the state to draw statistically reliable conclusions. If fewer respond, that is an indication that uranium and radon aren’t a significant local concern, she said.
Survey participants don’t have to provide their names, but they do have to provide addresses so public health officials can map the results. Those who provide their names and contact information will be mailed a copy of the results, Perry said.
Questions will cover environmental factors, like emissions around people’s homes and whether they use well water.
The survey also will ask about symptoms respondents have experienced and diseases with which they’ve been diagnosed, ranging from cancer to anxiety.
If results show a higher rate than usual of health conditions that could relate to uranium or radon exposure, the state may conduct a broader survey or full-blown health study that looks at individuals’ health records, Perry said.
A broader survey could be done by mailing surveys to everyone in a particular zip code, for example, or expanding the survey area to include parts of Bibb or Jones counties, she said.
Perry said her division generally conducts a couple of these kinds of community health surveys a year, although this is the first focused on both radon and uranium.
Radon and uranium problems can be controlled by the homeowner using various filters, aerators and vent systems.
But they can cost from $700 to $17,000 depending on the extent and nature of the contamination in a particular home.
County officials have said they’d like to find a way to help, perhaps by seeking grants to run water lines. But they can’t until they know the geographic area most affected by water contamination.
The cooperative extension won’t share that information without permission from the homeowners who’ve had their water tested, Lynch said. So the agency is preparing to send out letters asking those whose water was tested to sign a form that would allow their addresses to be released to county officials, Lynch said.
Welch said an official with the Georgia Rural Water Association arranged a meeting Jan. 4 in Atlanta to bring together Monroe County residents and officials, state legislators and state health and environmental experts to discuss the need for funding to bring county water to residents.
Welch said Monroe County Commissioner Patsy Miller, state Reps. Allen Peake and Susan Holmes, and Perry were among those who attended
Perry said she has been part of several conference calls with officials from cooperative extension, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, and the Environmental Protection Agency to discuss the results of the uranium water tests in Monroe County. All the officials involved agreed that residents in the area need municipal water, she said.
Welch noted that the special purpose local option sales tax up for approval in Monroe County in March will include funds for water, and she hopes that could help cover extending water lines to her area.
Lynch emphasized that the problem may be acute in other places north of the Fall Line.
“Nobody else has tested and done what we’ve done here in Monroe County, holding workshops to get the word out,” she said.