Biological pathways of exposure and ecotoxicity values for uranium and associated radionuclides: Chapter D in Hydrological, geological, and biological site characterization of breccia pipe uranium deposits in Northern Arizona

Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5025-D
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Abstract

This chapter compiles available chemical and radiation toxicity information for plants and animals from the scientific literature on naturally occurring uranium and associated radionuclides. Specifically, chemical and radiation hazards associated with radionuclides in the uranium decay series including uranium, thallium, thorium, bismuth, radium, radon, protactinium, polonium, actinium, and francium were the focus of the literature compilation. In addition, exposure pathways and a food web specific to the segregation areas were developed. Major biological exposure pathways considered were ingestion, inhalation, absorption, and bioaccumulation, and biota categories included microbes, invertebrates, plants, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. These data were developed for incorporation into a risk assessment to be conducted as part of an environmental impact statement for the Bureau of Land Management, which would identify representative plants and animals and their relative sensitivities to exposure of uranium and associated radionuclides. This chapter provides pertinent information to aid in the development of such an ecological risk assessment but does not estimate or derive guidance thresholds for radionuclides associated with uranium.

Previous studies have not attempted to quantify the risks to biota caused directly by the chemical or radiation releases at uranium mining sites, although some information is available for uranium mill tailings and uranium mine closure activities. Research into the biological impacts of uranium exposure is strongly biased towards human health and exposure related to enriched or depleted uranium associated with the nuclear energy industry rather than naturally occurring uranium associated with uranium mining. Nevertheless, studies have reported that uranium and other radionuclides can affect the survival, growth, and reproduction of plants and animals.

Exposure to chemical and radiation hazards is influenced by a plant’s or an animal’s life history and surrounding environment. Various species of plants, invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals found in the segregation areas that are considered species of concern by State and Federal agencies were included in the development of the site-specific food web. The utilization of subterranean habitats (burrows in uranium-rich areas, burrows in waste rock piles or reclaimed mining areas, mine tunnels) in the seasonally variable but consistently hot, arid environment is of particular concern in the segregation areas. Certain species of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals in the segregation areas spend significant amounts of time in burrows where they can inhale or ingest uranium and other radionuclides through digging, eating, preening, and hibernating. Herbivores may also be exposed though the ingestion of radionuclides that have been aerially deposited on vegetation. Measured tissues concentrations of uranium and other radionuclides are not available for any species of concern in the segregation areas. The sensitivity of these animals to uranium exposure is unknown based on the existing scientific literature, and species-specific uranium presumptive effects levels were only available for two endangered fish species known to inhabit the segregation areas.

Overall, the chemical toxicity data available for biological receptors of concern were limited, although chemical and radiation toxicity guidance values are available from several sources. However, caution should be used when directly applying these values to northern Arizona given the unique habitat and life history strategies of biological receptors in the segregation areas and the fact that some guidance values are based on models rather than empirical (laboratory or field) data. No chemical toxicity information based on empirical data is available for reptiles, birds, or wild mammals; therefore, the risks associated with uranium and other radionuclides are unknown for these biota.

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Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Biological pathways of exposure and ecotoxicity values for uranium and associated radionuclides: Chapter D in Hydrological, geological, and biological site characterization of breccia pipe uranium deposits in Northern Arizona
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2010-5025
Chapter D
DOI 10.3133/sir20105025D
Year Published 2010
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Columbia Environmental Research Center
Description 69
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Larger Work Title Hydrological, geological, and biological site characterization of breccia pipe uranium deposits in Northern Arizona (Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5025)
First page 283
Last page 351
Country United States
State Arizona
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