A decade ago, the words “Hanford downwinder” meant little to people in the Northwest.
Today, a unique archive opens at Gonzaga University to preserve the downwinders’ stories.
It’s the first effort in the nation to collect personal papers and health records from people exposed to radiation releases from the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
“If we don’t collect this information now, it’s lost forever,” said Pennington Ahlstrand, manager of the Hanford Health Information Archives.
The collection won’t be used to study the downwinders’ ailments, or make conclusions about whether they are Hanford-related.
But it will give a human face to a controversial era when the government knowingly - and secretly - exposed its own citizens to radiation dangers.
They include Margaret Ivester, 52, born in 1944 in Baker City, Oregon. She is one of 200 people who’ve already contributed their records to the archives.
As an infant, Ivester drank milk from local cows - the primary route that carried airborne radioactive iodine from Hanford to the tiny thyroid glands of children.
When she was 12, she developed a goiter on her thyroid gland, and was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 25.
Ivester hopes the archives will “build awareness” about health problems that may be linked to Hanford.
“Citizens were not given a chance to adequately protect themselves” from the Hanford emissions, Ivester said.
Some people, including Jo Miles of Toppenish, have donated their records to rebut the impression that Hanford caused universal harm.
Miles, 50, lived in Richland from 1946 to 1966 and has had no medical problems.
Reports on dangers from Hanford don’t square with his experience, Miles said.
“I feel strongly that anyone who lived in the area during that time should respond,” Miles said.
For decades, when Hanford’s past was still a Cold War secret, the federal government denied the radiation releases.
People living near the nuclear reservation had never been studied because, as one Hanford official put it in 1986, “we wouldn’t expect to see anything.”
But after a series of revelations starting that year, it’s now common knowledge that Hanford’s Cold War radiation emissions were massive - and dangerous.
Tall stacks on Hanford’s plutonium factories pumped out huge clouds of radioactive iodine 131 and other, more long-lived elements.
Hanford’s early reactors also flushed radioactive water into the Columbia River after a brief cooling period that let some of it decay to less-harmful potency.
The worst pollution was released in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, when filtration systems were crude and the nation was locked in an urgent nuclear arms race with the Russians.
Hundreds of thousands of people living in Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon and North Idaho from 1944 to 1972 were exposed. Nearly 50 years later, the government admitted it may have harmed people.
In 1990, Energy Secretary James Watkins said Hanford’s emissions increased the risks of thyroid disease and cancer in the inland Northwest.
A 1994 government dose reconstruction study said hundreds of thousands were put at risk from northeastern Oregon to Canada.
Archive donors have the choice of using their names or contributing confidentially, Ahlstrand said. They can give personal health questionnaires, family health records, photographs, books, videotapes and personal writings.
Eventually, the materials will be scanned into a computer so the images will be available to researchers via modem.
Today’s opening activities are at the Foley Center Library at Gonzaga. They include a 3 p.m. tribal drum group followed by an open house, with tours from 3:15 to 7 p.m.
The collection is a project of Gonzaga and the Hanford Health Information Network, which Congress created in 1991 to explain the potential health impacts of the radiation exposures. It is managed by state health agencies in Washington, Idaho and Oregon in concert with nine Indian nations.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: GAINING ACCESS For information call (800) 799-4442. The archives can be reached via e-mail, at email@example.com. There’s also a Web page on the Internet: http:/ /www.foley.gonzaga.edu/ hhiahome.html