I was born in 1954 in Great Falls, Mont., under showers of radioactive fallout.
My mom always told me to drink my milk, that it was good for me. Mom didn’t know the milk I drank as a child was poisoned with radiation. I didn’t know it either, until the National Cancer Institute released its study of radioactive iodine contamination.
I never imagined that I was a downwinder. My health has not yet been affected, but I always live with the question of whether the radiation I received as a child mutated enough cells in my body to produce a cancer or to throw my immune system out of whack.
My sister hasn’t been so fortunate; she was diagnosed several months ago with autoimmune thyroid disease.
Even though I have spent the last 13 years researching the radiation releases from the Hanford nuclear weapons plant in Washington state, I was still shocked by the recent study by the National Cancer Institute. Nearly everyone living in the continental United States during the 1950s was exposed to the fallout of iodine-131 from nuclear weapons explosions at the Nevada test site.
I was born in one of the hardest-hit areas. Babies and young children are especially sensitive to the damage that radioactive iodine can wreak.
While I now must live with doubts about my own health and that of my sister, there are national questions that must be answered. My experience of uncovering a half-century of lies and official deception concerning the federal government’s releases of radioactive iodine from Hanford has helped me to know the kind of questions to ask regarding this new information about nuclear weapons fallout.
1. Why have federal health officials not yet issued a public health advisory?
Most of the attention has focused on iodine-131 and thyroid disease. The National Cancer Institute estimated that about 75 percent of the thyroid cancer cases from the fallout exposures have not yet been diagnosed. But the government said it needs another year to review the study before giving people recommendations about what kind of advice it will issue to the American public. Any additional delay could harm many of those who were exposed.
While it is true that thyroid cancer is easily treatable and usually not fatal, it must be diagnosed early. Otherwise, the cancer can spread to other organs such as the lungs. I personally know of two Hanford downwinders who have died because their thyroid cancer was not diagnosed before it had spread to other parts of their bodies.
There were probably millions of children in the fifties whose thyroid dose exceeded 10 rads, a level at which studies have shown a higher risk of cancer. In fact, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has determined that level of exposure to pose a “significant risk” and uses it as the basis for authorizing a medical monitoring program for at least 14,000 people downwind from Hanford.
2. Why hasn’t there been a study of the other radioactive contaminants of the fallout?
There was more in that radioactive fallout than just I-131. Among the most dangerous components were plutonium, cesium, and strontium. These can cause leukemia, bone, lung and other kinds of cancers.
3. Why did it take the National Cancer Institute 15 years to provide a report to the American public?
Given the historical data, scientists probably had enough information 10 years ago to issue a public health advisory. The report still wouldn’t be out if not for the efforts of a handful of conscientious scientists, journalists and citizens. The NCI has been actively engaged in a cover-up. The person who has been directing this and other radiation effects studies for NCI is Bruce Wachholz . He began his career with the Atomic Energy Commission, which was in charge of the nuclear weapons tests. That’s a potential conflict of interest that should receive Congressional scrutiny.
4. Why is there no federal advisory board holding NCI accountable?
At the study’s inception, there was a scientific oversight board. But it was in the way of the cover-up, so it was disbanded. If a federal advisory committee made up of interested lay people and scientists had been present, the long delays and the cover-up might never have happened. Scientists are important for checking the study’s design and its implementation. Lay people, ordinary citizens, are essential for holding the government and scientists accountable.
Such a committee was established in 1991 to oversee studies concerning the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex. It’s called the Advisory Committee on Energy-Related Epidemiologic Research. It was supposed to oversee all Department of Energy-sponsored research on radiation health effects. But the department has conspired with NCI to keep studies such as the one on nuclear test fallout and others regarding Chernobyl away from the committee’s oversight I had thought that I was fortunate to have been born in the paradise known as Montana. Now, that myth has been exploded and there are two cover-ups to expose: Hanford and nuclear weapons fallout.
I will also have to cope with the health uncertainties of being one of the downwinders. How will you cope should you realize that you’re a downwinder, too?