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.
HTDS FINAL REPORT AND COMMUNITY REACTION
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deserves an “F” for its presentation of the results of the Hanford thyroid study, a chorus of critics in the Northwest say .
This was the tone of much of the media coverage following the release of the HTDS draft final results on January 28, 1999. The HTDS draft Executive Summary claimed:
[HTDS provides] 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 [50, p. 18].
Just 3 years before this statement was released, I held my beloved father’s hand as he lay dying from aggressive thyroid cancer. A tracheotomy tube protruded from a hole cut into his windpipe, allowing him to breathe, at least minimally, with an airway closed off by tumor growth. Tumors spread like wildfire to his lungs and brain. Just weeks after the FHCRC and the CDC declared that Hanford radiation exposures were not likely to affect thyroid health, I cradled my mother in my arms as she too died, having suffered from thyroid disease and hyperparathyroidism, wanting so much to live, but defeated by rapidly metastatic malignant melanoma.
It is very difficult to be reassured, as the HTDS summary suggested, when family members have died of thyroid cancer, and when one’s whole family has developed thyroid disease, with no history of the disease anywhere in the extended family. To many of us who were children in the Hanford downwind region during I-131 releases, these “reassurances” were worthless, even insulting, to the memory of loved ones dead of thyroid cancer or suffering with thyroid and parathyroid disease. To place such a statement in public materials, knowing that many of those who were children in the Hanford region during I-131 releases were currently suffering from thyroid cancer, thyroid disease, or had lost family members to these diseases, was at best an exercise of very poor judgment and, at worst, just plain callous.
A Seattle Times article reported the following reactions to the HTDS results:
We’re 10 years older and $18 million poorer, but we still don’t know whether Hanford downwinders were harmed by its radioactive emissions. We do know that 20 percent more of them are dead than expected. And we do know that eastern Washingtonians were found to have two to three times more thyroid disease than other populations generally.
But those seemingly alarming findings may not mean a thing, according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center that studied downwinders.
Then again, maybe the findings do mean something. No one, it seems, can say for certain.
The Hanford downwinder thyroid disease study is one of the most maddening chapters in the annals of epidemiology .
An epidemiological study, by nature, is the study of populations. Populations, by definition, are composed of individuals, each with a very real-life experience. Suddenly, the HTDS and its results, released after months of hushed and restrictive secrecy, reflected not life as it was for those of us who grew up in the Hanford downwind area during release years, but as a funhouse mirror, distorting our lives, and denying our experience. I felt myself becoming deeply angered, yet I knew that angry outbursts would accomplish nothing with HTDS scientists. They needed to understand that too many of us—too many of the people I had grown up with—now had thyroid disease, and/or thyroid cancer. They needed to know that I, that we, were not reassured by the HTDS’s purported “no harm” findings. It was up to us to let the world know that this epidemiologic study, for some reason, did not reflect our reality. This study had made us insignificant and invisible.
I had believed that the HTDS would finally show the world what had happened to all of us who lived in the shadow of Hanford. Yet, here we were, being fed a story of a reassuring, happy, healthy life next to a plutonium production facility, in spite of more than 750,000 curies of I-131 wafting through the air, landing on everything we touched or ate, and saturating my baby milk and ice cream. Those of us who had followed the progress of the HTDS and held out so much hope that it would reflect our reality concluded that something was amiss with either the data or the methodology on which HTDS was based . We wanted to get to the bottom of this.
49. Steele, K. D. 1999. Fallout from thyroid study: Critics fault CDC for early release of
Hanford results, unreviewed research. Spokesman Review. 14 February.
50. Davis, S., and Kopecky, K. 1998. Executive summary. HTDS draft final report, 18.
Seattle, WA: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
51. Torvik, S. 1999. Study further muddies Hanford waters. Seattle Times. 28 February
52. Over much of the course of HTDS, I served as a long-term member of the Hanford Health Effects Subcommittee (HHES), a citizens’ advisory committee to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and CDC, which had been following the development of HTDS. I had had great faith in science to reflect reality, and that the downwinders like me would hear the story of our lives and our damaged health confirmed within the results of HTDS.