I was honored to be asked to contribute a chapter to the collected works within Tortured Science: Health Studies, Ethics and Nuclear Weapons in the United States, compiled and edited by Dianne Quigley, Amy Lowman, and Steve Wing, published 2012 by Baywood Publishing Company, Inc, Amityville, New York. I am very grateful that Baywood has allowed me to reprint the chapter in its entirety. The chapter is reprinted as a series of excerpts.
THE PERSONAL IMPACT OF THYROID DISEASE
It is important while discussing the vastness of a “truth” attempted through environmental epidemiology to take a moment to see through the statistics and power calculations to the impact of disease on the individual. Thyroid disease may seem like a minor inconvenience to those who have not experienced this disease firsthand.
As a child, I hadn’t yet passed through the “latency” period before exposure- caused disease manifested itself. My family and neighbors in Richland remember me as a healthy child. It wasn’t until my teens that I began to experience the first uncomfortable symptoms of the failure of my thyroid.
My childhood was a happy one, playing in picket-fenced yards in back of our two story “F” house or in the front yard of our neighbor’s “B.” We boated on the Columbia River, played on its windswept islands, and made mud pies in the wet sands of the riverbanks. It wasn’t until almost four decades later that we would learn that the milk we drank from the local dairy was laced with radio- iodine, and that the muddy sands were infused with cobalt-60 released from the reactors into the Columbia. After my anger and shock at the fact that I had been involuntarily exposed to stuff that was very bad for children, and that there was nothing I could do about it, I, like many of my neighbors and friends from those days in Richland, trusted that the HTDS would finally answer our questions about why we had developed thyroid disease and thyroid cancer, diseases previously unknown within our families.
Thyroid disease is a mean disease. If you haven’t been unlucky enough to experience thyroid disorder, it isn’t a mere inconvenience. Many of us who developed thyroid disease after our time within Hanford’s downwind region suffered for years with unexplained symptoms that we experienced as extreme, disabling discomfort. These symptoms included migraines, intense pressure in the head, dizziness, gastrointestinal problems, extreme fatigue, and severe muscle contractions, all without a correct diagnosis. In my own case, since there was no thyroid disease in my family, medical personnel were not looking in that direction. From testing, they knew it wasn’t diabetes, and it didn’t appear to be leukemia. These problems would worsen and remain mysterious for decades. And with its disabling effects came decreased hours on the job due to chronic fatigue, days of disabling pain, life’s goals lost, not knowing the cause. So many of the women who grew up with me experienced miscarriage or infertility, some of the greatest losses a woman may experience. My father’s death of thyroid cancer was one of extreme pain; his esophagus and trachea quickly closed off by the wildfire spread of tumorous growths that metastasized from his thyroid. Tracheotomy tube protruding from his neck, his airway suctioned every hour, he died a death of irony and of extreme pain. Irony because he believed in the safety of Hanford operations and the reassurances of his bosses, the Hanford site contractor at the time, General Electric. Even when it was finally revealed in 1986 that Hanford had covertly released an estimated 750,000 curies of I-131 in addition to other biologically harmful radioactive substances off-site, my father still clung to his trust that Hanford’s contractors and the AEC had been upfront in their operations of the Hanford facility. Only when he was diagnosed with rapidly metastatic thyroid cancer did he begin to under- stand that it was too late.
The HTDS was the study that was intended to bring some closure, some answers to those of us who now deal with the debilitating health impacts of thyroid disease. My mother, who suffered from hyperparathyroidism and thyroid disease, had hoped that such answers would come from the HTDS. She died of a very aggressive form of malignant melanoma just after the January 28, 1999 public pronouncements of the Fred Hutchinson/CDC researchers that we should be reassured that our health had not been harmed from Hanford’s releases.
For those of us who suffer now with thyroid disease, thyroid cancer, or who have lost those who are very important to our lives to thyroid or other cancers, the HTDS gives a very unclear picture of what really happened at Hanford. Perhaps all we can ask is public acknowledgment that HTDS is not consistent with the results of other studies on I-131 exposed populations, in which increased incidence of thyroid disease and thyroid cancer was found, and that the HTDS is inconclusive at best. A health survey conducted by the Northwest Radiation Health Alliance (NWRHA), an alliance of Hanford downwinders, physicians, scientists, and social activists, found an excess of illness, including thyroid disease and cancer, among Hanford exposed participants . The R-11 Health Study, a study of the rate of prevalence of radiogenic illnesses in selected populations in the Hanford downwind areas, found that there was considerably more goiter (hyperthyroidism) and other diseases of the thyroid reported than in national survey data . The burden should be upon those who released radioactive iodine onto our communities to show that our thyroid disease was not caused by their releases, not upon those of us with thyroid disease or who have lost family members to the cruelty of thyroid cancer to prove that our disease was more likely than not caused by our involuntary exposures. We already carry the burden of a lifetime of suffering.
This is not true closure for those of us dealing with the debilitating effects of thyroid disease or with loss of family members who we really need to be here, but it at least does not carry the distorted and insulting message that no harm came from Hanford’s radioactive contamination of the air we breathed and the milk we drank day after day after day. If more than 750,000 curies of I-131 released onto the playgrounds and entered into the milk of babies does not cause harm, then why is the U.S. government currently distributing potassium iodide tablets to protect its citizens against terrorists using dirty bombs possibly containing radioiodine? If so much I-131 in my baby milk, air, and water didn’t cause me harm, then it’s time for the DOE, the successor agency to the Atomic Energy Commission which put me in harm’s way, to bear the burden of showing where this debilitating disease, prevalent in so many of my neighbors from 1940s and
1950s in the Tri-Cities, did come from. Until that time, the HTDS is just an epidemiologic attempt to answer the question, inconclusive at best.
93. See Nussbaum, R. H., Hoover, P. P., Grossman, C. M., and Nussbaum, F. D. 2004.
Community-based participatory health survey of Hanford, WA, downwinders: A
model for citizen empowerment. Society and Natural Resources 17:547-559.
94. R-11 study respondents reported goiter and other thyroid diseases approximately
6-10 times as frequently as respondents in the latest National Health Interview Survey. See Report of R-11 survey results. 14 November 1995. JSI Center for Environmental Health Studies.