Hanford downwinders take Dept. of Energy to court
Some people who grew up around a facility where nuclear weapons were produced are certain that their current, severe health problems are directly related - and they're taking the feds to court and demanding accountability.
The News Standard
May 9, 2005
Growing up in the shadow of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Washington, where plutonium was produced and used to manufacture bombs, Trisha Pritikin, 54, never imagined that the milk she drank or the air she breathed was poisonous.
Throughout the 1940s and '50s, the United States government intentionally released radioactive material, in particular, iodine-131, into the environment. As this byproduct of nuclear weapons production fell onto the surrounding grass, it was eaten by cows, which then transferred the radiation to their milk, which local children like Pritikin drank by the glass.
While scientists have known for over 50 years that iodine-131 can collect in the thyroid gland and lead to cancer or other diseases, neither the federal government nor the contractors who ran the facility even alerted nearby residents of their activity.
Although there was no history of thyroid illness in their family, both Pritikin's mother and father developed thyroid disease and died of cancer. Trisha herself has extreme hypothyroidism, a condition where the body lacks sufficient thyroid hormones, resulting in slow metabolism, and a general lack of energy.
"Had the [Department of Energy] let people know about the radioactivity or attempted to protect us when we were kids, I'm convinced my parents would still be alive," said Pritikin.
Now she and over 2,000 others who grew up downwind of the reservation claim that iodine-131 emissions crippled their health. On April 25, after fifteen years of legal wrangling, the "downwinders" brought a case to federal court, suing General Electric and DuPont, the contractors that ran the Hanford Reservation for the federal government in the '40s and '50s.
"Right now people like me are very disheartened and disillusioned by a government that told us everything was safe at Hanford and then basically let us die," said Pritikin, who lives in Berkeley, California but traveled to Spokane, Washington to attend to the first week of the trial. "We sacrificed our health for the cold war. It's amazing that you could do this to people and just not talk about it."
Expected to last four to five weeks, the trial will focus on six "bellwether" plaintiffs; three with thyroid disease and three with thyroid cancer. While the case is not filed as a class action lawsuit, if the jury finds that there is adequate scientific evidence to prove that the Hanford Reservation is culpable in these incidences of thyroid illness, it would set the stage for Pritikin and the other 2,200 downwinders to settle for damages out of court. Under the 1957 Price-Anderson Act, the government indemnified the contractors, so any claims - which could amount to tens of millions of dollars - will be paid by taxpayers.
At the root of the trial is the simple but sordid fact that the government and its contractors have a history of obscuring the truth about the health impacts of nuclear activity. The public was never told about the emissions or any related health hazards until the late-1980s when activist groups and a local newspaper filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
Despite widely accepted scientific research that links radioactivity with cancer and other disease, the Energy Department continues to stall on cleaning up the Hanford Reservation - in late April, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the DoE $75,000 for failure to meet a legal deadline for moving radioactive sludge into underwater containers.
Nuclear activists around the country are watching the trial to see what sort of precedent could be set for an agency that has long ducked responsibility for health and environmental problems.
"In general, the DoE's position has been that nuclear weapons production is essentially as harmless as making widgets," said Len Ackland, author of Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West, in an interview with The NewStandard. "The Department of Energy, despite its name, is in charge of producing nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and the DoE wants to do whatever it can to make the public accept that nuclear weapons are important for national security and that they are a good idea. It's in their interest to brush off any health concerns and paint nuclear weapons with smiley faces."
In general, it is almost always challenging to prove whether environmental contamination contributes to an individual's illness because so often the diseases associated with pollution are common and can be caused by a variety of factors. With radioactive emissions conducted over 50 years ago, there are even more uncertainties.
"It's difficult to pin down the relationship of a specific person's cancer to a specific environmental toxin; it's not like a germ in your body that you see," said Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, who has a PhD in nuclear fusion from UC Berkeley. "Because of the latency period the iodine is long since gone [from the body]."
This inherent challenge is the crux - and the strength of the defense team's argument in the Hanford case. While the DoE, DuPont and GE declined to comment for this story, on the trial's opening day, defense attorney Kevin Van Wart said that over 23,000 people in the country have thyroid cancer and they obviously don't all live near Hanford. He added that there is no way to prove that people who lived near Hanford had any increased risk of the disease.
"Hanford is no atomic bomb," said Van Wart.
The Hanford Thyroid Disease Study (HTDS), a congressionally-ordered $20 million project conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in conjunction with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, found no increased risk for thyroid disease among those who were exposed to Hanford's releases of iodine-131. "If there is an increased risk of thyroid disease, it is too small to observe," wrote the scientists in the report.
"Those studies vindicate what the contractors believed; that the plants did not pose a hazard," said Van Wart in his opening statement.
Yet a 1999 review of the study's draft report by the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) drew substantial criticism. For 38 percent of the nearly 5,000 individuals interviewed for the study, no parent or close relative was available to provide information about childhood milk consumption. Without proper information about participants, the study was flawed, found the NAS report.
"The negative results the study obtained are less definitive than the report and press releases stated," reads the NAS review.
Furthermore, other scientists and activists are critical that the HTDS did not compare those living near Hanford to a sample population from the general public who would not have been exposed to iodine-131 emissions. When the Northwest Radiation Health Alliance, a group of scientists and doctors affiliated with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, surveyed 800 downwinders and compared their health problems with those in the canon of medical literature, they found that the downwinders had a 300 percent higher rate of some types of thyroid disease.
The research, published last year in Society and Natural Resources, found strong evidence of a link between Hanford's emissions and juvenile hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism, a condition where the thyroid is overactive, leading often to fatigue, weight loss and depression. They also found that Hanford downwinders had high rates of cancers of the thyroid, central nervous system and female reproductive organs.
"The Hanford Thyroid Disease Study is a worthless study," said Rudi Nussbaum, a retired Portland State University professor of physics and environmental studies and an author of the Society and Natural Resources paper.
Regardless of the varying scientific data, activists say the bottom line is that the government, in its rush to produce nuclear weapons, failed to take human health concerns into account. Susan Gordon, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a national coalition of 33 member organizations said this lack of precaution explains why there was very limited monitoring established at the time.
"People deserve to be compensated," said Gordon. "But the people we work with are less interested in a monetary settlement than wanting to know what happened to them and in getting help with their health"
She added, "This trial could offer some hope to downwinders harmed at other facilities throughout the country. Right now, it's very demoralizing."
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