Radioactive Iodine and Thyroid Cancer

I posted a commentary about how the State of Colorado has announced they intend to study the incidence of thyroid cancers around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. The decision was inspired by allegations by people calling themselves “Downwinders.” I speculated that the fears of thyroid cancer were stoked by an autobiography of someone who grew up near the plant and believed the facility was responsible for increased incidence of cancers, including thyroid cancer.

I mentioned in the December 7th commentary that the autobiography, which attracted and continues to attract significant readership, had many technical flaws. I obtained a copy of the book on interlibrary loan from the local library, which has three copies that were all checked out. I don’t intend to do a detailed review, but will reiterate my first reaction to the book was that it contained a complete catalog of outlandish rumors that were spread by critics of the Rocky Flats Plant. The book has too many inaccuracies to have generated the attention it gained, and I only intend to list a few:

  • Page 17 mentions how the workers stand in front of glove boxes to “. .       .mold and hammer the plutonium ‘buttons’ into shape” (That’s just silly!)
  • Page 18 introduces the word “trigger” for the use of atomic weapons to initiate thermonuclear fusion “. . .of a hydrogen bomb—a mushroom cloud, as in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.” (That bomb was not a hydrogen bomb. It is mentioned on the same page that the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki was an atomic bomb.)
  • Pages 29-30 summarizes the amount of plutonium released from the 1957 fire in Building 771 as being “. .       .from 500 grams to as much as 92 pounds of plutonium or more.” This is an example of the willingness of the book to publish absurd exaggerations. The 92 pounds of plutonium would equate to about 3000 curies. Add twelve zeros if you want to convert that into the picocurie unit used to monitor air, water, and soil around the plant. That immense amount of plutonium released into the environment would have swamped the many thousands of samples collected around the plant during and after its operations. As the book points out, the half life of plutonium is around 24,000 years, so releases on the order of what the book mentions would have been persistent and easy to detect.

I believe the Colorado study will conclude that the Rocky Mountain region and the Denver metropolitan area had a higher incidence of thyroid cancer than the rest of the nation. There is a discussion on page 89 that snow will wash radioactive particles from the atmosphere, and the area has heavy snowfall. The era of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons resulted in higher incidence of thyroid cancer among youngsters who drank the milk of animals eating grass contaminated by that snow-related fallout. I speculate in the book I’m currently writing that Rocky Flats indeed had an impact on risk of thyroid cancer. Children of people moving to the area to participate in the economic boon created by the plant could be said to have been exposed to higher risk. Note that the increased risk had nothing to do with the operations or emissions from Rocky Flats. That probably wasn’t the intention of the author when she wrote on page 331, “Nearly every family we know in the neighborhood has had some form of cancer or thyroid problems.”

The author mentions that the area around the Rocky Flats Plant is “safe” according to government agencies on page 333. She then dismisses that conclusion in following pages. My conclusion is that you should be careful in selecting what you read about Rocky Flats. There are still people who protested the place and its mission who want you to believe the worst. The truth is that Rocky Flats accomplished its national defense mission and the people who worked there were diligent in assuring that they and their families living near the plant were safe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *