Government offers admission, no apology to `downwinders'

Residents get data on radiation exposure

May 28, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

RICHLAND, Wash. - Here in central Washington, the espresso bars of Seattle and the snow-draped Cascades seem worlds away. Arid deserts stretch for miles. Tumbleweeds hop across roads. Dust storms can be fatal. This is where the U.S. government built the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in 1943. The spot was perfect - flat and unpopulated, with a snaking river to power the reactor that would cook plutonium to drop over Nagasaki.

Residents knew for decades all about Hanford. Some proudly worked there. Others knew it as a place that made them proud - the government, after all, had chosen their swath of the country to make bombs that would help fuel an arms race. In Richland, a perennial company town where thousands of Hanford workers lived, the high school's nickname is still "the Bombers," and at the school's front entrance recently, a message reading "Have a safe spring break" was written below its insignia: a mushroom cloud.

But today, in Richland and other communities that spread in all directions from the nuclear site, thick brown envelopes are landing in mailboxes carrying an extraordinary admission from the government: This venerable neighbor, Hanford, spewed radioactive material into their air for years while making bombs and could have put the health of residents - in particular, the letter's recipient - at risk.

They call themselves "downwinders," and they are 10,000 otherwise ordinary Americans who are part of a program, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that is believed to be the first of its kind in the world. The U.S. Department of Energy has acknowledged that communities around Hanford, and around the country's other nuclear sites, may have been exposed to dangerous chemicals. Never before, though, has any government offered its citizens personalized data on how much radiation affected them as a result of efforts to make nuclear bombs.

Releases of iodine-131

At Hanford, accidental releases of iodine-131 were frequent between 1944 and 1957, but perhaps the worst release came in 1949 when the military, in an event dubbed the "Green Run," deliberately spread radiation to see how far it would travel throughout eastern Washington, into Idaho and beyond. Plumes of radioactive material were released from reactors, transported by weather and deposited on grass - to be consumed by nearby residents through milk, fruit or vegetables.

That residents may have been exposed during those years was not known until 1986, when stacks of sealed documents were released by the Energy Department after years of pressure from citizens. Since then, thousands of downwinders have complained of health troubles and have implored the government to help treat them.

Participants in the new program, many of whom have thyroid diseases they blame on the exposures, receive numbers telling them how much radiation likely entered their bodies. They receive no promise of treatment, and no acknowledgment their health troubles are linked to radiation.

For some, like Jim Gross, the apparent confession from the government brings relief. Even though no doctor can prove definitively that his hypothyroidism had anything to do with radiation exposure, he's happy to see an official admission that it was a possibility. "It is the start of the healing process," said Gross, 49, who grew up in northern Oregon, southwest of Hanford. "For me and others like me, this says, `This is what happened. This is what we did.'"

But many downwinders, especially those who have been outspoken and lobbied for the program, are quick to note its shortcomings. It leaves unanswered the questions on many of their minds: whether receiving doses of radiation means they will ever receive compensation or free medical care. Some, therefore, paint the program as a mere gesture - perhaps, they suggest, an attempt by the government to appear benevolent while never owning up to what it did.

`Who knows what it means?'

The residents receive an estimate of their exposure to iodine-131, the primary contaminant released from Hanford, in "millirads" and are told they may provide the information to their doctors. Some scientists have said that more than 10,000 millirads could mean potential thyroid problems but that there is no way to be certain lower doses would not cause problems. In the government paperwork, there are no tables for what doses can theoretically cause what ailments.

"I don't know if it means a whole lot," said Jeff Camp, who learned that his father, who died from a rare form of cancer in 1994, had received an estimated 4,100 millirads of iodine-131. "They give you a number, but who knows what it means? What a person will do with this number, I haven't the foggiest idea."

Camp's father farmed wheat in La Crosse, Wash., 75 miles from Hanford. He had always been healthy and never smoked, but he developed a liver cancer that spread rapidly.

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