Health Risks of Plutonium Part II

I’ve received comments about what I’ve written on risks from low levels of plutonium in the environment and that I would be comfortable visiting the wildlife refuge at the former Rocky Flats site with my family. One worrisome assertion was that plutonium “was designed to kill.” Plutonium was generated in large quantities in a natural underground “reactor” in Africa that was dubbed the “Oklo Phenomenon a bit under two billion years ago. I agree that plutonium and other elements (i.e., arsenic) are toxic at some exposure level, but I can’t think that Mother Nature designed them to kill.

Another commenter referred to “Mortality Among Plutonium and Other Radiation Workers at a Plutonium Weapons Facility” by Gregg S. Wilkinson, et al. (The copyrighted article is online in the February 1987 edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology.) The responder points out Rocky Flats workers with higher levels of occupational plutonium exposure had a somewhat higher incidence of a few types of cancers than were experienced by the general population. My primary focus was on the abstract of the report that says, “Mortality among 5413 white males who were employed at least two years…(at Rocky Flats) was investigated to measure risks from exposures to low levels of plutonium and external radiation. When compared with US death rates, fewer deaths than expected were found for all causes of death (and) all cancers…”  That remarkable result was reached despite the fact that 26 percent of the workers had body burdens of plutonium from occupational exposure.

I don’t read the report to be a basis for some of the dire warnings being issued about the risks to people who chose to spend a few hours visiting the refuge, since the average person working in the industrial area for at least two years was not at increased risk.  In fact, people visiting the area west of the former industrial area will be exposed to about the same amounts of plutonium as is in their back yards from worldwide fallout. Anyone wanting to minimize their exposure to plutonium should avoid mountains where snow washed out higher levels of fallout.

I will post dissenting comments if they are civil, to the point, and factual. Other than that, I intend to move on to subjects that are more enjoyable.

5 thoughts on “Health Risks of Plutonium Part II

  1. Hello Farrel:
    In my earlier comments to you about the Wilkinson study I did not say what you attribute to me, that some Rocky Flats workers exposed on the job to plutonium had more cancers of certain types than did the general population. I said, as Wilkinson does, that they had excess cancers by comparison to his control group of non-exposed Rocky Flats workers. The crucial comparison he makes throughout his study is between exposed and non-exposed workers. That workers had less cancers than would be experienced by the population in general is a striking example of the healthy worker effect. What stands out about Wilkinson’s study is his finding that some workers exposed to as little as 5% of the standard for permissible lifetime exposure to plutonium developed cancers. This must be why one of his supervisors at Los Alamos told him to alter his results before publishing the study and another told him that if his results were true it would shut the industry down. The documentation for these remarks is contained in a brief paper I have written about the controversy surrounding Wilkinson’s study. It will soon be posted to the web site but I do not believe this has happened yet, so I’ll send you a copy by email. Best regards.

  2. Some people who worked at Rocky Flats will develop cancer (with various levels of exposure) and some who did not work at Rocky Flats will develop cancer. Same with NOT developing cancer. As a long-time employee at Rocky Flats, I was sometimes asked about health risk. When I told people that studies found barely-detectable elevated risks, they sometimes found that even scarier since “you can’t detect them”. Why is a barely-detectable risk scarier than a well established risk, like cigarette smoking? Beats me, but for some folks, it is.

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