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Hanford companies deny radiation impact

Companies that ran the nuclear weapons production at Hanford are trying to deny their radiation made people sick much the way the tobacco industry denied smoking caused lung cancer, attorneys for six central Washington residents told a federal jury Thursday.

But a lawyer for General Electric and DuPont, which ran plutonium production at the nuclear reservation in the 1940s and 1950s, urged the jury to be guided by science and not swayed by sympathy.

Both sides began offering closing arguments Thursday in a case that involves six “downwinders” – people who were born and raised under the prevailing winds that carried clouds of radiation emitted by the nuclear weapons plants. Three of the six have thyroid cancer, and the other three have other thyroid diseases.

Attorneys for the downwinders argued there’s no question that radiation causes thyroid cancer. Although there’s no way to tell if a particular type of radiation caused a specific type of cancer in any one individual, Louise Roselle told jurors they didn’t need that type of certainty to decide the case in favor of the downwinders.

There’s also no way to tell that tobacco caused lung cancer in a particular individual, she said.

“For years, the tobacco industry denied that smoking causes lung cancer … and trotted out their paid spin doctors to say there was no evidence,” Roselle said. “Eventually, people saw through the tobacco industry’s claims.”

But Kevin Van Wart, an attorney for the defense contractors, said it was the downwinders who were using paid experts to sway the jury. Some of their experts had impressive credentials, but hadn’t done studies specifically tied to the type of radiation downwinders were exposed to, and the types of diseases they have.

Some of the downwinders’ experts mentioned Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear reactor accident in the former Soviet Union, he added, as if just mentioning the word was enough to justify a conclusion.

“Exposure is not enough. The issue is whether the exposure caused these conditions,” said Van Wart, who was only partway through his closing argument when the trial recessed for the day. “They want this case decided on sympathy and not on science.”

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation produced plutonium and other material for nuclear weapons starting in 1944, and continuing through much of the Cold War. In the 1940s and 1950s, it released clouds of radioactive material, including Iodine 131, that was carried by the winds until it fell on the surrounding landscape. The radioactive iodine was absorbed by grass and other plants, eaten by cows and passed along to people who drank the milk. Iodine concentrates in the thyroid.

Nearly 2,200 people have sued the Hanford contractors for a wide range of illnesses they believe were caused by the radiation. The six downwinders at the trial are known as “bellwether” cases, which means the outcome of this trial could serve as a guidepost for the larger case.

The case is scheduled to go to the jury after closing arguments conclude today.

Under court rules, the downwinders don’t have to prove the radiation definitely was “the” cause of their medical conditions. Instead, they have to prove it is probable, or more likely than not, the radiation was “a” cause of their conditions.

“You can’t spread radiation all over Eastern Washington and then come into this courtroom and say no one was ever hurt,” Dick Eymann, an attorney for the downwinders, told the jury.

Downwinders produced medical experts, including a cell biologist, endocrinologists, surgeons, a pathologist and a bio-statistician, to bolster their claims, Eymann noted. The contractors called only two expert witnesses, and neither was a medical doctor.

“If they had a different opinion, don’t you think you would have heard from their doctors?” Roselle said.

But Van Wart countered that doctors aren’t trained to figure out what caused a disease. They’re trained to diagnose a disease and treat it.

“They say, ‘Where are the doctors?’ We say, ‘Where are the scientists?’ ” Van Wart argued. “You have to have more than just your resume. You have to have a scientific process.”

The contractors’ witnesses explained the scientific studies that try to determine the risk of exposure to radiation.

Eymann said the jury should apply common sense to cut through the defense contractors’ smokescreens and conclude it is probable that Hanford radiation was a cause of the six downwinders’ medical conditions.

After three weeks of testimony, “you’re all somewhat scientists,” he said.

But Van Wart countered common sense was not enough: “Your life experiences don’t equip you to tell whether radiation caused these conditions. For that you have to apply science.”