REPERCUSSIONS: Downwinders

"DOWNWINDERS" ARE INDIVIDUALS living within the pathway of radioactive emissions from a nuclear plant or atomic bomb test site. According to the Washington State Department of Health Hanford Website, nearly 2 million individuals were exposed to a total of 237 varying radionuclides released into the air pathway or through the Columbia River pathway from 1944 to 1972. [1] Tom Bailie, who as a child grew up and continues to live on a farm near Hanford today, spoke to a Congressional Advisory Committee in 1994 showing a map he called "death mile" where "100 percent of those families drank the water, drank the milk, ate the food, have one common denominator that binds us together, and that is thyroid problems, handicapped children or cancer." [2]

Radiation exposure occurs from either an internal source (alpha and beta radiation) or an external source (gamma and x-ray radiation) or a combination of both. Both sources have the potential to directly harm cells. With any radiation exposure one of four things can happen; one, radiation can pass through the cell without causing any harm; two, it may damage the cell with the cell repairing itself before producing new ones; three, it may damage the cell with the mutation passed on to new cells and four, it will simply kill the cell. [3] When cell damage is passed to on new cells a delayed health effect may occur including cancer and/or genetic effects. Diseases may appear within months, years, or decades with susceptibility dependent on individualized factors such as heredity. Although it is controversial whether low-dose radiation causes cancer a widely-known report published in 1990 by the Fifth Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR V) concluded that "information from scientific studies about people receiving low doses was sufficient to determine cancer risk" and that "cancer risk from radiation exposure is higher than regulatory and advisory groups had previously described." [4]

To understand how Hanford radiation releases affected the downwind population in particular, the Hanford Dose Reconstruction Project (HEDR) was initiated in 1987 and completed in 1995 to define the radiation dose estimate of people living near Hanford between 1944-1972. Originally established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the project was turned over to the Federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1992 when the public perceived the DOEs involvement as a conflict of interest.

The term "dose" refers to quantity of radiation or energy absorbed by the body. Dose is measured in rad, millirad, Gray, or milliGray. Dose differs from exposure in that it takes into account that some radiation entering the body will be flushed out or expelled through normal biological functions such as breathing or urination. The highest radiation dose originating from the air pathway at Hanford occurred during 1944 -1957. Iodine-131 was the largest airborne component with cerium-144, plutonium-239, ruthenium-103, ruthenium-106, and strontium-90 contributing in lower amounts. [5] The highest radiation dose originating from the Columbia River occurred during 1950 -1971. Phosphorus-32 was the largest component of the Columbia River pathway with zinc-65, arsenic-76, neptunium-239, and sodium-24 present in lower amounts. [6] Factors contributing to the Hanford dose include whether a person consumed contaminated milk, fruit, berries, or leafy vegetables, or if they ate radioactively contaminated fish or shellfish, drank contaminated Columbia River water, and/or whether they participated in recreational water activities such as swimming or boating in the Columbia near the facility. The distance or direction a person lived from the Hanford during an active radioactive release plus the length of time spent in a contaminated area also contributed to the overall dose. Age and gender are also taken into account as well as the individual's food consumption rate, weight, metabolism, and weight of their organs to determine dose radiation exposure. For instance, children and teenagers concentrate more iodine in the thyroid gland than do adults. [7] Not everyone living within the estimated pathway (covering the entire area of eastern Washington into Oregon, Idaho, Canada, and as far east as Montana) received the same radiation dose or became ill from the exposure. Those who did become ill often feel that their illnesses were a direct result of the Hanford radioactive releases.

In 1988, after formally classified documents relating to Hanford production activities confirmed that copious amounts of radioiodine were released into the area's atmosphere over a forty-year period, a thyroid study was launched to determine whether the residents living near Hanford from 1944 through 1957 were more susceptible to thyroid cancers and disease than an unexposed population. A controversial study conducted by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and administered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for over $20 million was released in 2002. The Hanford Thyroid Disease Study (HTDS) examined 5,199 people identified from birth records during 1940-46 to mothers who lived in one of seven affected counties in Washington State. The draft released in 1999 was regarded as highly suspect by much of the public including some of the review panel scientists due to the fact that it entirely discounted any evidence of thyroid cancer or disease within the Hanford studypopulation. Due to negative draft report critiques, the HTDS researchers sought an external, third-party review. This external review board "re-evaluated the data and corrected errors in some of the dose estimates as well as characterizations of statistical certainty." [8] In June 2002, the final HTDS report announced "the findings do not prove that Hanford radiation had no effect on the health of the area population...if there is an increased risk of thyroid disease from exposure to Iodine-131, it is probably too small to observe..."

Understandably many former Hanford employees and area residents are extremely disappointed with the final HTDS statistical generalizations. In an article dated June 22nd, 2002 the Seattle Times shared a story of a woman whose father worked was an engineer at Hanford from1947 to 1953. Having lived downwind from the facility as a child, her illnesses include "cancer of the lip and salivary gland...tumors in her sinuses, hypothyroidism, and auto-immune problems." [9] Ray Samsom, an electrician who worked at Hanford in 1974 was exposed to radioactivity when a sliver of radioactive graphite lodged in his nostril after changing overhead light bulbs. Now suffering an aggressive form of skin cancer in this same nostril, he has had to date five operations to cut out cancerous tissues and is scheduled for another to reconstruct his now disfigured nose. [10]

Even more alarming is the fact that former employees like Samson involved in litigation find it difficult to get their cases considered. With early work paper records difficult to locate, many claimants have not been able to confirm their actual Hanford employment. Of the 4,100 claims from former federal nuclear workers (1,200 from Washington) only 85 people have received final approval for compensation (no former Hanford employees were included in this group). [11] Litigation concerning the general public in the matter has been a slow, arduous process. Thousands of downwinders are still waiting to have their cases heard and some will become ill or will die in the mean time from diseases largely suspected to have resulted from historic Hanford radioactive releases.

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