Deadly legacy of Hiroshima in US

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The Independent Online
TRISHA PRITIKIN grew up in the shadow of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the weapons plant in the wilderness of eastern Washington state that produced the plutonium for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs under conditions of the utmost secrecy.

Three years ago Ms Pritikin's father, a former nuclear engineer at the plant, died of thyroid cancer. Her mother has just been diagnosed with the same disease. She herself suffers from hypothyroidism, a hormone deficiency that leads to sluggishness, weight gain and deterioration of the skin.

None of the so-called "Hanford downwinders", who have lived in the immediate vicinity of the nuclear reservation and suffered through long years of secrecy surrounding the true nature of its purpose, are in any doubt that the release of radioactive materials has ravaged the health of the local population, poisoned the air and the soil, infected the local livestock and contaminated the nearby Columbia river.

So when preliminary results of a long-awaited federal health survey were released at the beginning of the month, they caused widespread consternation and disbelief.

The study, commissioned by the federal Center for Disease Controls and Prevention, came to the astonishing conclusion that there was no link between increased exposure to radioactive iodine, one of the main contaminants released by the plant, and increased incidence of thyroid-related illness.

The researchers, from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, claim to have uncovered "rather strong evidence that exposure at these levels... does not increase the risk of thyroid disease. These results should consequently provide a substantial degree of reassurance to the population exposed to Hanford radiation that the exposures are not likely to have affected their thyroid or parathyroid health," they write.

The downwinders, however, feel far from reassured. "It's clearly ridiculous," Ms Pritikin said. "We think there is a problem with the statistical power of the study. But most of all this does a complete disservice to people... who have seen families members fall ill and die."

Judith Jurji, president of the 3,000-strong Hanford Downwinders Coalition, who grew up near the plant, concurred. "In my family six out of 10 have destroyed thyroid glands, with no history of the disease. It's just clear as a bell," she said.

The Fred Hutchinson Center spent 10 years and $18m on its study. The researchers do not deny the unusually high incidence of thyroid disease in the Hanford region; rather they miraculously conclude that the nuclear plant and its toxic emissions are not responsible for it.

According to Tim Connor, an environmental researcher who has spent the past two weeks turning the study inside out in an attempt to undermine it, the problem stems from a faulty line of inquiry. The Fred Hutchinson team did not look at thyroid disease incidence as a whole, but rather asked whether increased exposure to radioactive iodine-131 (I-131) led to increased risk of disease.

Since it was impossible to gauge the exposure of individuals with accuracy, Mr Connor argues, the survey result is just "statistical wizardry".

"They purposely held this study up as sound evidence that not only is Hanford somehow blameless for the thyroid disease that afflicts Hanford downwinders, they also clearly suggested that the results were superior to previous research indicating a connection between I-131 and thyroid disease," Mr Connor said.

The danger now is that a federal monitoring programme designed to track and, contain the devastating health effects of emissions from the nuclear plant will be dropped.

The whole affair is the latest in a long series of shocking discoveries for the downwinders. For four decades, since the plant opened in 1944, the official line was that Hanford was well-controlled and harmless.

In 1986, the Department of Energy at last released documents that not only stated for the first time that dangerous nuclear materials had been produced at Hanford, but that billions of gallons of radioactive liquids and billions of cubic metres of radioactive gases had been released into the surrounding area.

Between 1944 and 1960, more than 740,000 curies of I-131 were released (about one tenth of that released at Chernobyl in 1986), contaminating wide areas of Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and into Canada. Some of the releases were accidental or caused by poor safety standards. Others, however, were deliberate - either as experiments designed to speed up the cooling process in plutonium production, or as tests to check whether the intelligence services were alert enough to detect the emissions.

About two million people have been exposed to radioactive iodine, which is absorbed by the human body through the thyroid gland and can cause hormone deficiencies and cancer. For years before the truth began to emerge, local medical professionals noticed a worrying increase in thyroid-related disorders. People with skin conditions caused by thyroid problems were said to be wearing "Hanford necklaces".

The radioactive iodine entered the food chain and spread far beyond the area because local cows and goats used for commercial milk production ate contaminated grass.

In some ways, the Hanford controversy marks an advance in American efforts to come to terms with the darker side of its Cold War legacy. A National Cancer Institute study into health problems arising from nuclear testing in the Nevada desert was kept secret for 14 years before it was released.

Nobody doubts the integrity or the motives of the Fred Hutchinson researchers. But what downwinders bemoan is the apparent insensitivity to the feelings of their subjects. "We've lived with this all our lives," said Tricia Pritikin. "My father is dead and my mother is terminally ill. It would be nice to feel the federal government was fully behind us in our efforts to come to terms with it all."