Growing up in Richland, Wash., in the shadow of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where the Department of Energy produced plutonium for bombs, Trisha Pritikin never imagined that the milk she drank or the air she breathed was poisonous. Her father, a safety engineer at the plant, was supremely patriotic, and the entire family felt proud that his work was helping to win the Cold War.
What she and the thousands of other nearby residents didn’t know was that throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the government intentionally released radioactive material, in particular, iodine-131, into the environment. The largest such release, known as the "Green Run," occurred in 1949, when the government secretly released about 8,000 curies of radioactive iodine in order to evaluate equipment it could use to determine the location of similar Soviet plutonium production facilities.
Radioactive debris fell onto the surrounding grass, where it was eaten by cows, which then transferred the radiation to their milk, which local children — like Pritikin — drank by the frothy glassful.
Scientists knew even then that iodine-131 collects in the thyroid gland and can wreak havoc, causing thyroid cancer or other diseases. Yet neither the DOE nor General Electric and DuPont, the contractors that ran the facility, alerted nearby residents. Not until the late 1980s, when a newspaper reporter in Spokane sued the government for access to classified documents, did the truth emerge.
Meanwhile, Pritikin’s mother and father had both developed thyroid disease and died of cancer. She herself has extreme hypothyroidism, a condition resulting in slow metabolism and excessive fatigue.
Now, she and over 2,000 other people who grew up downwind of the reservation claim that iodine-131 emissions crippled their health. Last month, on April 25, after 15 years of legal wrangling, the downwinders opened a trial in federal court, suing GE and Dupont, the government contractors that ran the Hanford Reservation for the federal government in the 1940s and 1950s. But under the 1957 Price Anderson Act, the government indemnified the contractors, so any claims, which could amount to tens of millions of dollars, will be paid by taxpayers.
"Right now, people like me are very disheartened and disillusioned by a government that told us everything was safe at Hanford and then basically let us die," said Pritikin, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., but traveled to Spokane to attend the trial. "It’s amazing that you could do this to people and just not talk about it."
Even today, the Energy Department continues to dodge responsibility. The government is using as its main defense a study that the National Academy of Sciences says is riddled with flaws. Called the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study, it was a congressionally ordered $20 million project by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. It found no increased risk for thyroid disease among those who were exposed to Hanford releases of iodine-131. Yet no parent or close relative was available to provide information about childhood milk consumption for 38 percent of the nearly 5,000 individuals interviewed for the study.
Furthermore, the Thyroid Disease Study failed to compare those living near Hanford to a sample population from the general public who would not have been exposed to iodine-131 emissions.
When the Northwest Radiation Health Alliance, a group of scientists and doctors affiliated with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, surveyed 800 downwinders and compared their health problems with those in the canon of medical literature, they found that the downwinders had a 300 percent higher rate of some types of thyroid disease.
Their research, published last year, found strong evidence of a link between Hanford’s radioactive emissions and juvenile hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism, a condition where the thyroid is overactive, leading often to fatigue, weight loss and depression. They also found that Hanford downwinders had high rates of cancers of the thyroid, central nervous system and female reproductive organs.
A friend of mine just returned from Hiroshima, Japan. He described the destruction of that city at the end of World War II from an atomic bomb made in America. What happened there is acknowledged the world over as horrific. Yet here in this country, victims of our Cold War bomb production remain unacknowledged.
We can’t bring back Pritikin’s parents. But we can be honest with her, and with the thousands like her who suffer from disease and who need help with treatment. In its rush to build bombs to protect America, our government failed to worry about the impact on human health here at home. It is time for us to reconcile that devastating oversight.
Rebecca Clarren is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Portland, Oregon.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.