Traveling the radioactive road
Kenyans live exposed to radiation from building material
November 4, 1999
From Correspondent Alphonso Van Marsh
MRIMA HILL, Kenya (CNN) -- In southeastern Kenya's Kwale district, the sandstone surfaces of the Shimba Hills jut sharply upward, rising several hundred meters above a plateau just on the edge of the coastal plains.
Kenyan authorities dug building materials from one of these hills, which make up Kwale's coastal uplands, to build a nearby road. It was a money-saving action -- Mrima Hill was closer than a rock quarry just 20 kilometers (12 miles) farther away.
But now Kenyan authorities are scrambling to set up health monitoring systems for a rural community exposed to low levels of radiation -- radiation from the ancient sedimentary rocks that formed the 323-meter (1,060-foot) hill.
And some scientists say the Kenyan government knew the material was potentially harmful, but used it anyway and did nothing to contain the radioactivity.
"You can say there is thorium, actinium, there is uranium, there is potassium-40." said Dr. Anthony Kinyua, director of Kenya's Institute of Nuclear Science.
It is the thorium, Kinyua said, that over time poses the most risk.
"It might result in some cancer," he said.
Some 25,000 people live around Mrima Hill and have been exposed to low-level doses of radiation. Nuclear scientists at the University of Nairobi are testing samples to determine how much.
But Mwamaba village elder Juma Saied worries that the efforts have been too long in coming.
"For years there have been mysterious deaths," Saied said. "We fear some deaths have been caused by the air we breathe emanating from this hill."
Bicycle taxi driver John Shickopte charges about 60 cents for a ride on the radioactive road. He is worried too, he said, but doesn't know what to do.
"The bike taxi business is my only income and this is the only road," Shickopte said "I don't have a choice."
Eight-year-old study detailed danger
Shickopte and others shouldn't have been put in a position to worry, said geophysicist Jayanti Patel, who published a study on the hill's dangerous radioactivity eight years ago.
"I sent copies personally to all the relevant ministries," he said. The study said "Sedimentary rock from the hill should not be used for either building homes or road constructions."
Kenya's Radiation Protection Board is now reviewing Patel's findings, while radiation levels on some areas of the hill are more than 50 times higher than what scientists consider safe.
Health ministry officials told CNN if anyone exposed to the radiation felt sick, he or she could check in at the local health center.
But in rural Kenya, updated facilities -- not to mention cancer treatments -- are rare. And the number of people exposed to radiation is not limited to those who traveled the road -- residents in the hillside village have used sediment from the slopes to line their homes and grow their crops.
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