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Downwinder case headed to the jury

A jury begins sorting out today whether some central Washington residents were Cold War casualties of weapons produced at the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

In a move that stunned lawyers representing the Hanford “downwinders,” attorneys defending the contractors who ran the government plutonium plants rested their case Wednesday after calling just two experts to rebut more than two weeks of testimony that sought to link cancer to the nuclear weapons production.

One of those witnesses, John D. Boice, is an expert in cancer research who spent part of the day defending the government’s Hanford Thyroid Disease Study, which concluded there’s no way to tell whether any person’s thyroid cancer was caused by radiation released from the weapons plants.

“It was a fine study,” Boice said. “It was remarkable in the way it was conducted.”

But on cross-examination, Boice was asked to read from a standard textbook on cancer, a book to which he himself has contributed. That book, which Boice agreed was “the bible” for those who treat and research cancer, says there are only two known causes of thyroid cancer: radiation and genetics.

A key element in the trial is the effect of radioactive iodine – iodine 131 – on the people who lived near the nuclear weapons facility. Iodine 131 and other radioactive materials were released in large clouds, starting in the mid-1940s, but the public wasn’t told about the radiation hazards for nearly 40 years because details of plutonium production at Hanford were classified for national security.

Details of the releases were kept secret until the mid-1980s, when activist groups and The Spokesman-Review obtained Hanford’s early emission history under the Freedom of Information Act.

The iodine fell from the sky downwind from Hanford, was absorbed by grass and other plants, eaten by cows on nearby farms and passed along to people who drank the milk. Iodine concentrates in the thyroid, a gland that regulates human growth.

While there are some 2,200 people who have filed claims against the federal government over Hanford releases, the current trial concentrates on six “bellwether” cases, considered a snapshot of the overall claims. Three of the bellwether downwinders have thyroid cancer and three others have autoimmune thyroid diseases.

The federal government spent some $27 million studying the effects of Hanford releases, and one of its conclusions was there was “no evidence of abnormally high rates of thyroid disease.” It found 19 cases of thyroid cancer among 3,440 people in its study.

Boice, who researches childhood cancers and works with the International Epidemiology Institute, said iodine 131 was not as likely to cause thyroid cancer as X-rays. The study “had a substantial ability to find an effect, had there been one,” he said.

Downwinders’ attorney Brian Depew pointed out that a separate study of 3,500 people not exposed to unusual amounts of radioactive iodine found only four cases of cancer. But Boice contended the differences in the ages and the way people were selected for the study could explain the difference.

Depew also questioned the credibility of Boice and the institute, noting it primarily works for businesses being sued.

“Every time you’re involved in litigation, you do studies that cost millions of dollars that find no effect,” he said.

But under rebuttal questioning from defense attorneys, Boice said his research had linked some activity to cancer, such as X-rays on childhood cancers and radon on lung cancer in miners. Although he is sometimes hired by trial defendants, “they look for independent research,” he said.

For more than two weeks, attorneys for the downwinders have presented the 12-person federal jury with a wide range of experts to explain the complicated medicine and science that underlies their claims. They brought in one of the nation’s top endocrinologists to explain thyroid function, biostatisticians to discuss the rates that cancer occurs in different groups of people, and mathematicians to discuss how to estimate the amount of radioactive iodine that fell in various places at various times more than half a century ago.

The six bellwether downwinders also testified, and one, Shannon Rhodes, was called back briefly by the defense Wednesday in an attempt to suggest her thyroid cancer may have been caused by farm chemicals.

She was asked whether she ever told a doctor she grew up on a farm and was exposed to farm chemicals.

“I was asking about what may have been the cause,” Rhodes said. “I was asking about DDT, and would that make a difference.”

Defense attorneys had said they planned to call a medical expert after Rhodes, but abruptly announced they were resting their case. Attorneys for the downwinders then canceled any plans to call rebuttal witnesses, and U.S. District Judge William Fremming Nielsen told them to be ready to present closing arguments this morning.

The jury at that point will be asked whether the nuclear releases were a cause of the downwinders’ cancer. If the jury rules that was a cause, it will likely hear more testimony before determining how much, if anything, downwinders should receive in damages.