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Downwinder plaintiff Rhodes dies at 69

Jury rejected her claim about source of cancer


Shannon Rhodes’ losing battle to prove that Hanford radiation emissions caused her spreading thyroid cancer spanned two trials and ended in federal court six years ago.

Now, her life has ended as well – cut short by complications from metastasized thyroid cancer.

Rhodes, a Coeur d’Alene artist and writer, died May 15 at her winter home in Green Valley, Ariz. She was 69.

“She loved life, but she ran out of energy. If not for this, we’d have had her another 20 years,” said her daughter, Stacy Black, of Everett.

Rhodes was born in Spokane in 1941 and grew up near Colfax, where she lived on a farm. She was exposed to radioactive iodine-131 emissions from Hanford in the final years of World War II and the early years of the Cold War, according to a claim filed against the private contractors who ran Hanford for the government.

The iodine, an unwanted byproduct of plutonium production, was ejected from unfiltered stacks at the nuclear weapons facility in the rush to make nuclear weapons.

The invisible gas traveled with the winds and was deposited on grass, where it was consumed by cows and goats and passed along in milk to the tiny thyroid glands of infants and children, according to studies conducted after the federal government revealed the Hanford contamination for the first time in the mid-1980s. That information came out in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from The Spokesman-Review and two environmental groups.

Iodine-131 is known to cause thyroid cancer if absorbed in sufficient doses. It is especially dangerous to children and can take decades to trigger a cancerous tumor.

The potency of the Hanford doses has been a central issue in the long-running “Hanford downwinders” litigation filed in the early 1990s. Some 2,400 people have sued, claiming the Hanford emissions made them sick.

Two bellwether plaintiffs with thyroid cancer won jury verdicts totaling $545,000 in 2005. The claims of three others with non-cancer diseases were rejected.

Rhodes was one of the bellwether thyroid cancer plaintiffs, but her estimated dose was less than the other two thyroid cancer victims chosen for trials. A jury deadlocked on her case, leading to a 2005 mistrial verdict by U.S. District Court Judge William F. Nielsen.

A second jury rejected her claim, siding with attorneys for the contractors who said her radiation dose wasn’t large enough to establish that Hanford “more likely than not” caused her cancer – the burden of proof set by the court.

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