About the film
Nominated for Best Documentary in Bentonville Film Festival run by Hollywood actress Geena Davis, nominated for Best Documentary and Best UK Feature at Raindance Film Festival, semi-finalist for Best Documentary at Gold Movie Awards. Winner of Best Documentary at Gallup Film Festival and winner of Accolade Global Film Competition Merit and Human Rights Awards.
In the spring of 2015, residents from two communities enlist the help of scientists to prove their suspicions; that their water was dangerously contaminated. In Sander, Arizona, mother of two Janene Yazzie, finds out from tests carried out by a PhD student, that the drinking water in her son’s school--once her own school--has more than double the acceptable levels of uranium. Further, she learns that the State has for years kept relevant results hidden from the public and stopped further testing.
Janene suspects that drinking from contaminated school water fountains may have contributed to her contracting ovarian cancer. The science seems to support this. Biologist Dr Cheryl Dyer’s peer reviewed research showed that uranium contaminated water can cause reproductive cancers. Janene embarks on a mission to investigate the source of the contamination. She investigates the site of the largest radioactive spill by volume in US history, which remains virtually unknown and unreported.
This part of the film draws on the expertise of nuclear engineer Kim Kearfott, who notes that some areas of the Navajo reservation have uranium contamination levels at much higher levels than the evacuation zone of Chernobyl. We get the highest readings possible on the geiger counter, which has never been shown. Despite this an industry head tells us you can eat enriched uranium, because it’s not dangerous or radioactive.
On the other side of the country in Flint, Michigan, residents bypassed the state too and organised for their water to be tested by the scientist Marc Edwards. The results proved what the state had been denying, that the water was contaminated with lead and other toxins. Christina and her husband Adam Murphy and their children are now suffering health problems.
The fact that the state suspended democracy and put them under the rule of an unelected emergency manager, who switched their water supply to the corrosive Flint River water to save money, shatters their beliefs. It leads this conservative couple to start their own investigations and become activists. African American organiser, Nayyirah Shariff, was running a campaign against water shutoffs in Flint, when the water crisis hit.
She is a pivotal leader in pushing for all the city’s lead pipes replaced and holding those guilty to account. The unprecedented movement for the protection of clean drinking water in Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline brings these women together. It's a critical moment for them and marks the beginning of a growing movement that's becoming more globally interconnected, to protect water.
I am extremely impressed by how well our story is being told.
I was aware of the 'Flint Water Crisis' but it wasn't until I saw this that I felt the full emotional weight of this ongoing issue.
I like that folks facing the challenges were the ones framing the narratives and science. That was really cool.
The scenes beautifully weave together the raw struggles & strength of two women from opposite sides of the country to illuminate the universality of our water issues. Water respects neither law nor boundary; if you are not safe, I am not safe.
Thirst For Justice Fact Check Sheet
I am a journalist with over 12 years of experience working for the BBC in international news, so my work is accurate and supported by government data, official reports and peer reviewed scientific research. I was also a Knight Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan and I’m now the inaugural Media Fellow at the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.
Navajo Water Contamination
Uranium contamination in the water supply in the town of Sanders, Arizona, a community on the border of the Navajo reservation with an 80% Navajo population.
1 Sanders water contaminated at twice the action level
“The results, which came back in June of 2015, showed uranium levels at 43 parts per billion, well above the EPA limit of 30 parts per billion. Exposure to uranium in drinking water can lead to bone cancer and impaired kidney function.”
2 In Sanders, Arizona, residents drank uranium-contaminated water for years.
3 The problem of uranium contamination is not only in Sanders, but across the Navajo Nation from decades of uranium mining.
“From 1944 to 1986, nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands. EPA has identified 523 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation (NN), encompassing more than 27,000 square miles within Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.”
4 Elevated Arsenic and Uranium Concentrations in Unregulated Water Sources on the Navajo Nation, USA
“Results indicated that arsenic and uranium concentrations exceeded national drinking water standards in 15.1 % (arsenic) and 12.8 % (uranium) of tested water sources. Unregulated sources in close proximity (i.e., within 6 km) to abandoned uranium mines yielded significantly higher concentrations of arsenic or uranium
than more distant sources.”
5 Test results of contaminated unregulated wells on the Navajo reservation
Maximum contaminant level (MCL) for uranium is 30 micrograms per liter (μg/L)
6 Providing Safe Drinking Water in Areas with Abandoned Uranium Mines
“The Navajo Nation estimates that up to 30% of the population (approximately 54,000 people) do not have piped water to their homes. These residents haul water either from safe watering points or from unregulated sources, such as livestock wells and springs. Some of these unregulated water sources exceed drinking water standards for uranium and other chemicals. Nevertheless, human consumption of unregulated water is reportedly widespread due to a lack of public water systems.”
In the film we took geiger counter readings at 3 sites, measuring gamma radiation. Cameron, Arizona, Church Rock, New Mexico and Blue Gap, New Mexico. These sites are proven to have high levels of uranium contamination, as detailed in these Environmental Protection Agency reports below. They’ve been listed as Superfund and priority sites, which means they have been ranked among the most toxic and contaminated sites in America.
1 Reports on contamination in Cameron, Arizona
- i) AUM 457 is a priority mine site based on its potential impacts on the Little Colorado River.
“The Section 9 Lease Mines were operated in the late 1950s and early 1960s, located about 10 miles southeast of Cameron, Arizona, and also include a concrete structure called an “upgrader”, which was meant to increase the concentration of uranium in the ore from local mines. AUM 457 is a priority mine site based on its potential impacts on the Little Colorado River.”
- ii) Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous (New York Times)
“The radioactivity at the former mine is said to measure one million counts per minute, translating to a human dose that scientists say can lead directly to malignant tumors and other serious health damage, according to Lee Greer, a biologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. Two days of exposure at the
Cameron site would expose a person to more external radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers safe for an entire year.”
iii) Full onsite EPA report says gamma readings are over 50 times background on page 3
“Gamma radiation readings at the Site were measured at levels significantly above the naturally occurring background levels, with maximum levels more than 50 times the background readings.”
- iv) Water contamination at Cameron
“Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s (NTUA) water system serves the Cameron area with regulated water that is not contaminated with uranium. Four unregulated wells in the Black Falls area were found to have elevated levels of uranium and other contaminants.”
2 Reports on contamination at Church rock, the site of uranium mines and a major waste spill in 1979.
- i) Current EPA superfund site;
“The United Nuclear Corporation National Priority List Site is located 17 miles northeast of Gallup, on the southern border of the Navajo Indian Reservation in Church Rock, McKinley County, New Mexico…The Site includes a former uranium ore processing mill (25 acres) and tailings disposal area. Facility operations contaminated soil and groundwater. Cleanup activities and monitoring are ongoing…Currently, groundwater migration is not under control. The Zone 3 system was shut down in 2000 because it was accelerating the movement of the contaminated water rather than containing it.” https://semspub.epa.gov/work/06/500020848.pdf
3 Reports on contamination from the ‘Trust Mines’ at Blue Gap, NM.
4 Abandoned Uranium Mines Site Screen Reports, with gamma readings across the Navajo Nation
Health impacts of uranium
1 Chemical effects include autoimmune function, high blood pressure, kidney disease and reproductive issues. Radiation is released from uranium and can cause lung cancer, kidney disease and bone cancer.
2 Uranium and ovarian cancer. The film’s protagonist Janene Yazzie, went to the same school in Sanders as her son, which was recently proven to have been contaminated with uranium for at least 39 years. Therefore she drank uranium contaminated water for years. She developed ovarian cancer at age 19.
“Because of the decades of uranium mining/milling in the Colorado plateau in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, the uranium concentration and the route of exposure used in these studies are environmentally relevant. Our data support the conclusion that uranium is an endocrine-disrupting chemical and populations exposed to environmental uranium should be followed for increased risk of fertility problems and reproductive cancers.”
Health impacts of lead
1 Study: Lead Exposure Can Be Deadly For Adults
“Findings suggest that low-level environmental lead exposure is an important risk factor for death in the USA, particularly from cardiovascular disease.”
2 World Health Organisation Fact Sheet
“Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children. Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood. Lead in bone is released into blood during pregnancy and becomes a source of
exposure to the developing fetus. There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.”
3 Lead and rheumatoid arthritis. Christina Murphy, one of the film’s protagonists, developed rheumatoid arthritis during the lead water contamination crisis.
“Concentration of heavy metals in serum samples of RA patients and healthy control individuals differ significantly, which shows that heavy metals may contributes towards development of RA.”
4 Stillbirth and miscarriages
Widespread Water Contamination
1 PFCs Pollute Tap Water for 15 Million People, Dozens of Industrial Sites
2 EPA Data: Tap Water in More Than 1,000 Communities Tainted With Lead Above Action Level
3 Nearly 100 Cancer-Causing Contaminants Found in U.S. Drinking Water
4 170 MILLION IN U.S. DRINK RADIOACTIVE TAP WATER.
5 15000 abandoned uranium mines across Western United States – Bureau of Land Management
6 Uranium mine locations
7 Oil leaks – top 20 on shore
8 significant pipeline incidents