Downwinders sick more often, health survey says
First findings identify clusters of illness in communities near the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant.
November 17, 2016
By Dan Vaccaro
Preliminary results from an ongoing health study suggest that residents who lived in communities near the Rocky Flats nuclear plant between 1952 and 1992 may experience unusual illnesses, including specific cancers that can be linked to radiation exposure.
The early results may corroborate decadeslong speculation about the potential ill effects of living in communities adjacent to the former nuclear production facility northwest of Denver.
Deployed online in May, the survey drew more than 1,700 responses over seven months, which were analyzed for both health and geographic information.
“I see some concerning patterns in the data,” said Carol Jensen, the principle investigator for the survey and a professor of integrative health care at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “Thyroid cancer, for example, is the second most common disease in our research and has been linked to ionizing radiation in the past. In the rest of the state and nationwide, thyroid is the ninth most common cancer.”
More than 40 percent of the reported cancers are classified as “rare,” meaning that they generally affect less than 15 of 100,000 people per year. There were also other unusual diseases in the data, some even unknown to Jensen, a longtime nurse.
Jensen cautioned that the findings are drawn from a small sample size and that the nature (self-reporting) and scope (40-year time frame) of the study make the data difficult to quantify. She says that while it is impossible to draw firm conclusions, the early indicators warrant more extensive research.
The results from the survey will be released at two town hall-style meetings on Nov. 18. Lead researchers from MSU Denver, Colorado State University and advocacy organization Rocky Flats Downwinders will present the findings, answer questions and discuss next steps.
The Rocky Flats Plant was located 16 miles northwest of downtown Denver between Arvada and Superior in Jefferson County. For almost 40 years, employees at the industrial facility used plutonium – a radioactive metal linked to cancer – to build triggers for nuclear weapons. The site underwent an extensive $7 billion cleanup that concluded in 2005.
The idea for the community health project originated with Tiffany Hansen, co-founder of Rocky Flats Downwinders. Hansen reached out to faculty members at universities and colleges across the state to see if they’d be willing to conduct a health survey.
Jensen invited Hansen to speak in her integrative health class, and afterwards, the students insisted on tackling the project. They spent the spring semester studying the impact of radiation on health. Jensen and one of her students developed the survey based on a similar environmental health project in Utah. The survey was vetted by social scientists at MSU Denver, University of Colorado Boulder and CSU, and approved by MSU Denver’s Institutional Review Board.
“Our goal is to make a positive impact on people’s health,” Jensen said. “If there isn’t a higher rate of illness, that’s great; but if there is, we believe that people have a right to know, so they can take the necessary precautions for their health. Doctors need to be educated on early warning signs, too.”
Jensen said plans are already underway to test soil for contaminants, record oral histories, create informational materials for doctors and continue to organize community support groups. She is seeking additional funding for these elements.
Jensen also noted that two past studies attempted to measure health impacts in the area, but characterized both as flawed. One used theoretical models to analyze exposure for those who worked outside only. The other looked for certain types of cancer, but not those most often linked with radiation.
Living in the shadow of Rocky Flats
It was such a nice neighborhood. It still is.
The year was 1979. My husband had received a major promotion that moved us to Colorado from Illinois and even provided us with a real estate agent to search for a house. The agent showed us numerous homes, but a cozy house in Westminster at the end of a cul de sac was what we could afford.
As we wandered around the house, making our final decision to buy or not to buy, I glanced out the back window and noticed what looked like an industrial site in the distance.
“Oh, it’s a government site, top secret, you know how that is,” said the agent off-handedly. And I nodded. Those kinds of installations seemed to be all over Colorado, and the Cold War was in full swing. It never occurred to me that I should find out more about Rocky Flats.
But after moving into the house in January, I learned I was pregnant. And I began to have disturbing conversations.
“You know what they do there, don’t you?” said Tina, my neighbor, with her toddler in tow. “They work with plutonium and evidently there was some big accident that happened there in the ’60s. No one really knows what happened because it’s all hush-hush.”
I had no idea that our little house was located downwind of Rocky Flats either, a production facility that manufactured plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. Plant operators had been accused of causing radioactive contamination within the facility and the surrounding area, from plutonium fires and plutonium carried by wind that had leaked from radioactive waste.
I saw ominous articles in the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News and Daily Camera about landowners suing Rockwell International for property contamination, including some living in the Countryside Estates development (closest to the plant) that bordered my neighborhood.
Every evening, I could see the lights of Rocky Flats twinkling in the distance, and it was frightening because we could not afford to move.
In late April that year, I heard that a large scale protest was planned, and on April 28 I joined 9,000 others including singers Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, physician Helen Caldicott and anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg. For the first time, my motivation was not for myself but for my unborn son, and I felt truly vulnerable. The realization that there might be serious contamination issues in my neighborhood that could affect my son was bad enough. But the secrecy surrounding Rocky Flats made it even worse.
The demonstrations continued throughout that summer. In October, my son Brian was born, with no complications or issues. But living in the shadow of Rocky Flats continued to influence me. In 1981, I worked on a PBS documentary series, “Nuclear War,” that focused on the plant, and I transitioned into working for PBS as a full-time career. We stayed in the neighborhood until 1990, when we finally moved. But I continue to monitor my family for possible longer-term radiation effects – an uneasy vigil to be sure, but one made even more essential by research studies such as the Rocky Flats Downwinders Community Health Survey.