Uranium-in-hair test useless

by K.S. Parthasarathy

For the past few weeks, the ‘uranium in hair’ news story from Faridkot has been receiving a lot of media attention.The presence of uranium in hair is nothing new. In USA, several analytical laboratories analyze hair samples and offer advice and treatment. At US $180 per sample, it is a thriving business. Experts argue that the test is useless in the diagnosis of diseases.

Presence of uranium in the hair of children by itself does not mean anything. “I have data on uranium in hair for more than 20,000 persons. I have never seen a single case in which it was clinically significant and affected treatment”, said Dr William Walsh, a specialist in the field responding to my e-mail query.

According to Ronald Kathren, Emeritus Professor, Washington State University, a well-known expert on uranium related fields, background levels of uranium in hair vary highly from person to person and region to region, depending largely on dietary factors.

On June 17, 2008, Aetna, the US agency providing scientific information on health care, asserted that hair analysis has not been proven to be of use in either the diagnosis or treatment of autism.

The American Autism Society concluded thus: “The exact cause of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is not well understood. …..Currently there are no biological markers for ASD, and diagnosis is based solely on behavioral criteria”.

Pritpal Sigh, head of Baba Farid claimed that “the results were startling”… “around 80 per cent of samples… revealed the presence of uranium in levels that the experts have described as pathological,” he said.

Did they collect for comparison, hair samples from their healthy siblings or from normal children from the regions from which the autistic children came? The study appears to be flawed. My repeated attempts to get the uranium test results from the German Company failed.

Some people made un-substantiated, un-scientific and preposterous claims on the origin of uranium. They attributed the allegedly increased levels to Indian nuclear reactors at 150 km away away, Pakistan’s reactors and winds from Afghanistan. A competent team of scientists from the Department of Atomic Energy is studying the matter. I do not want to prejudice their investigation.

During the 60s, some people in USA argued that uranium in peaches from a region near the Hudson River might have originated from a uranium enrichment plant located across the river.

An enterprising lawyer found that peaches from far off California also contained uranium. Peaches grown in cultivated farms, using fertilizers were more “radioactive” than those grown in virgin fields. Phosphatic fertilizers contain uranium!

Uranium run off from the fields may cause increase in the concentration of uranium in drinking water. This aspect needs closer investigation. Uranium enters body through food and water. Most of it is excreted promptly. Body retains a small portion. A portion of it appears in hair.

We cannot avoid the presence of uranium around us. It is present in rocks, soil, water etc. The first one metre layer of a 50 paisa-sized piece of land may contain about one kg of uranium. It may be more, or less depending on local geology. Water entering the soil pores carries traces of uranium with it.

Normally, the uranium concentrations in water in India are less than a fraction of a microgramme to a few microgrammes per litre. Scientists have measured moderately high concentrations at a few locations.

Researchers have found that the maximum concentrations of a few hundred to a few thousand microgrmmes per litre in USA, Finland and UK. For uranium, the maximum acceptable concentration of uranium in water is based on its chemical toxicity.

On September 15, 2008, Pritpal Singh sought financial support from Mukesh Ambani. “Dr Carin Smit with her team visited our centre and stayed with us for 15 days and diagnosed the most severe cases and came to the conclusion that mostly kids are highly toxified because of Mercury,” he wrote.

Now Smit claims that uranium is the cause for the health conditions of the children! The investigations on the appropriateness and the legality of some of the treatment practices such as “chelation therapy”, advocated by the foreign team, may open a can of worms.

— The writer is former Secretary, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board