Reports say Tanzanian farmers have used uranium dust as a pesticide. Immediate inspections are needed, says Ute Koczy, a member of the German parliament and Green Party spokeswoman on development issues.
DW: Tanzanian media have reported that local farmers have used uranium dust to protect their crops. When you found out about this, you wrote an open letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as well as the president and prime minister of Tanzania. What did you call for in the letter?
Ute Koczy: First of all, I want more information and an explanation. It seems to me to be a very questionable practice that farmers are beginning to use radioactive dust to protect their produce. So our first question is about what's going on in Tanzania. Who's responsible for it? What's the background behind this behavior? Who's procuring it? And who is at work here? We see a real urgency for the state and various organizations involved to inform the public, so that the practice can be stopped as soon as possible.
How dangerous is using this dust for people and the environment?
That depends on the amount used. Is it really true that uranium dust is being put on the products, or how exactly does it work? These things are still not clear. I regard it as extremely dangerous that people are coming in contact with uranium dust at all because we don't have exact data and numbers about what level of radioactivity is dangerous for human beings. There are various reports suggesting even the smallest amounts can lead to health problems. That's why I hope to see a complete ban on this practice in Tanzania, since it's simply not clear what kind of dangers are involved. But one thing's definitely clear: it is dangerous.
What quantities of uranium dust are in circulation, and is it known where the dust came from?
We don't know anything concrete on that; we've only heard about the issue. NGOs have sounded alarms. But atomic energy authorities in Tanzania have already confirmed the reports and are working to uncover what's happening in order to protect the population from danger. I hope that goes quickly and efficiently.
Is the region in which uranium dust has been used now contaminated? How can the fields be cleaned up?
First of all we have to find out what exactly has happened - and not panic. Now we need to examine where it took place and who can perform a clean up. In general, you can say that if produce has come into contact with radioactive dust, then there's a problem not just for those who used, it but also those who touch the produce and eat it. So, the circle of affected people can grow larger. That means we have to inform people thoroughly and immediately urge them to avoid contaminated products and take appropriate precautions. That means washing, and then, checking to see whether people have been contaminated or not. That needs to be done immediately and efficiently.
What role might the IAEA in Vienna play in the process?
First of all, the agency needs to recognize that these things happen. It's often the case that failing to conduct information and education campaigns in countries is irresponsible. Then they have to be sure that Tanzanian atomic energy officials are aware of international pressure to act immediately. Then, they have to oversee inspections and see what's really taken place. In general, I think promoting the use of uranium in Tanzania without clear policies on educating and informing people is a political mistake.
Ute Koczy is a member of the German parliament and a spokeswoman for development issues with the Green Party.
Interview: Andrea Schmidt / gsw