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.
Worker and Community Concerns about Safety
Many scientists and Hanford officials claim that the large radiation releases from Hanford were allowed due to incomplete understanding among early Hanford scientists of the dangers from radiation. Yet, while Hanford officials’ early knowledge of radiation harm may have been “incomplete,” these same officials established guidelines early on for the amount of radiation they felt they could release into the environment without causing harm to workers or surrounding communities: Hanford officials knowingly exposed workers and the public to levels of radiation exposure which they considered dangerous. For example, for the atmospheric releases of radioactive iodine (I-131), the guidelines were routinely ignored from the beginning of plutonium separation in December 1944 into the early fifties [18, p. 3-4].
Furthermore, “reports declassified in 1986 show that health specialists at Hanford recognized the risks of releasing so much radiation and were aware that the emissions could endanger residents of the region” .
Once the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Hanford workers learned about the nature of their work, workers started to worry that building atomic bombs might not be safe. Two weeks after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, Herb Parker and another top health official, Dr. Simeon Cantril, wrote a memo to workers, responding to questions about Hanford’s effect on surrounding communities. Parker and Cantril reassured workers that “the amounts [of radioactive iodine in Richland] are entirely innocuous” .
Public Suspicions Grow: Death Mile
Members of surrounding communities had reasons to be concerned. On a high plateau east of Hanford, outside of the small town of Mesa, there is a stretch of highway known as Glade Road. According to townspeople, of the 108 people who lived in 28 homes within a mile of the highway, 24 men, women, and children have become ill or died from cancer since the mid-1960s .
Further east, in the cafes of Basin City, Eltopia, Connell, and Cunningham, men and women raise their chins to show visitors scars on their throats where surgeons removed diseased thyroids. In this region, the white slashes are called “downwinder scars.” Mothers describe the horror of losing infants to unexplained illnesses. Husbands grow tearful remembering young wives who died from cancer, blood disorders, and other diseases .
As people began to talk about cancers and thyroid disease in their neigh- borhoods, near the Hanford plant, and as far away as Spokane and Walla Walla, Washington, public concern grew over the possibility that Hanford had secretly released radiation onto an unsuspecting population. It was known that disease sometimes takes decades to develop after exposure to environmental toxins such as radiation . Could so much disease be the delayed effect of Hanford exposures?
18. Thomas, J. 1990. Hanford Education Action League. The human toll. Perspective
19. Schneider, K. 1988. Seeking victims of radiation near weapon plant. New York Times,
20. Cantril, S. T., and Parker, H. M. 1945. Status of health protection at Hanford Engineer Works. HW-7-2136. (RL: HEW, August 24, 1945), p. 1. See also: Diary of Colonel Franklin T. Matthias. 24 August 1945, p. 104.
21. Leon and Juanita Andrewjeski, who lived on one of the farms closest to the Hanford reservation in Ringold had also kept track of the cancer and heart ailments in the area after Leon was first diagnosed with heart disease. By 1985, Juanita’s map indicated 35 heart attacks among people of relatively young age—in their fifties—and 32 cases of cancer. D’Antonio, M. 1993. Atomic harvest: Hanford and the lethal toll of America’s nuclear arsenal. New York: Crown.
22. See http://nuclearhistory.tripod.com/radiation.html