Carol Forsloff – Lori McMillan is one of a number of people who claim to have serious health problems related to radiation exposure from living near the Hanford Nuclear Plant. Like others who are referred to as “downwinders,” her claims are contested by science and the law, even as anecdotal evidence mounts against Hanford, an area in Eastern Washington said to be more contaminated and dangerous than any area in the world. Her story is like many other people, including this journalist, who was married to nuclear physicist, Francis Czerniejewski, and who lived in the region just a few miles from Hanford for five years during the 1960’s.
McMillan has breast cancer, and 10 of 13 of her friends have died of cancer since she moved to Hermiston, an area located within 50 miles of the Hanford Nuclear Plant. The rest of her family, including a daughter, have complained also of significant health problems that McMillan believes are related to radiation exposure. These include miscarriages and infertility, similar to problems I had shortly after moving to the Tri-Cities area of Kennewick, Richland and Pasco, Washington during the early 1960’s.
During an interview with this journalist McMillan cited examples of others who share their concerns about the health problems they maintain are related to levels of radiation exposure. Many lawsuits that began 19 years ago remain pending review or trial. But the question of how much exposure to radiation can cause serious diseases remains controversial.
The Downwinder website follows the litigation process related to complaints filed in reference to Hanford radiation effects said specifically to cause cancer, birth defects and other serious health issues.
According to recent updates on the general information site referencing clients in re Berg (CY-96-3151-WFN) and Lumpkin, et al. v. DuPont, et al. (CT-00-5052-WFN) cases all the cases have been consolidated and are now known as re Hanford Nuclear Reservation Litigation (CV-91-3015-WFN) Litigation was initiated against the Hanford Nuclear Facility which produced plutonium for the creation of nuclear weapons by the United States during the period 1944 until 1990. Thousands of people who maintain they were exposed to Hanford’s radiation initiated claims beginning in 1990. Some of these cases continue at the present time. Plaintiffs Gloria Wise was awarded $317,251 and Steve Stanton $227,508 for their thyroid cancers in jury trials in 2005. Others are presently on appeal.
Since the development of Hanford health physicists have been aware of the potential health problems that might occur from radiation exposure. They determined that radioiodine presented the greatest and most immediate hazard but were uncertain to what degree. National Defense issues during the period following World War II delayed further investigations. Furthermore an intentional release of radioactive material at Hanford in 1949, which was said to be an “intelligence-related experiment” was kept secret from the public until 1986. Local communities had therefore been exposed to serious hazards without their knowledge.
How much is too much exposure to radiation and what are the consequences to human and animal health is a complex question requiring many dimensions of research and information, according to experts. Data has to be collected that quantifies the amount of radioactive material, the length of exposure, and the specific details of the effect on a given number of individuals. Radiation exposure can be from either gamma or beta radiation, which affects the skin. It can also enter the human body through the food supply.
Scientists from the Department of Energy tell us cancer is the principal type of injury that can occur from radiation exposure, but that it is difficult to determine causation related to it versus other factors. This becomes the difficult task offered by the Hanford experience.
In the meantime protest groups have organized to remind the government of the need for oversight on the clean-up efforts related to Hanford’s nuclear waste that remains from the closing of its principal reactors. They stand with the “downwinders” in objection to the way nuclear energy has been presented to the public, the lack of reliable data on the potential threats to humans, and the intense secrecy concerning intentional releases of radioactive material that made the people in the Tri-Cities guinea pigs in experiments. An April 15 rally in Richland, Washington underlined the need for the government to properly contain the waste, provide proper oversight on clean-up operations and to do so more expeditiously in order to protect the community from potentially further harm.
It is the legacy of the “downwinders” and my own that provokes concern, but the problems related to nuclear energy remain as the search for sources of alternative energy to oil and gas continue. The worry for the Hanford Watch group, environmentalists and litigants is that the risks of the past, the lack of specifics related to the radiation, may be too high a price to pay to continue nuclear energy as a source of power.