Rocky Flats and Thyroid Cancer

The State of Colorado Department of Health has announced they intend to “. .  . study the incidence of thyroid cancer in neighborhoods around the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, after a survey backed by a community group raised concerns.” I think that such a study is completely justified, since the group, called the “Downwinders,” is alleging that there is a higher incidence of that cancer in neighborhoods near where the Plant operated.

An article in the Denver Post points out that a 1998 Colorado Department of Health “. .  . study using a statewide cancer database concluded that those near Rocky Flats didn’t suffer from cancer rates higher than people in the metro area. But that study didn’t look specifically at incidence of thyroid cancer or other rare cancers.  .  .  .  . “

I think I know why this has become an issue. An autobiography, which has many technical flaws but attracted significant readership, raises the issue of thyroid cancer in association with Rocky Flats. I need to get a copy of the book from the library, but, as I recall, the allegation is that Rocky Flats was somehow equivalent to Chernobyl. The book ignores many technical facts, and one is that youngsters in the Rocky Mountain region who drank milk were more likely to develop thyroid cancer because of radioactive iodine in fallout (accumulated in the milk) from atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. One area where that was identified as more prevalent of a problem was the “Rocky Mountain West.”

I’m in favor of the study that Colorado has announced, and I predict the Downwinders will be disappointed in the results. Rocky Flats did not process radioactive iodine that is commonly associated with thyroid cancer. However, I understand there are many who continue to be influenced by the sadly flawed raid of the Rocky Flats Plant by the Justice Department in 1989 that understandably worried people who lived nearby. My reassurance to those people is simple. Those of us who worked at Rocky Flats and lived nearby with our families did everything possible to protect them and ourselves.

Rocky Flats and the Downwinders

As predicted, large numbers of people are lining up to demand more money from the government after DOE agreed to a $375 million settlement of a lawsuit by people near the plant. People in the metropolitan area of Denver not included in the settlement area now want some money for themselves. A recent Denver Post article describes a meeting to describe preliminary results of a survey by the Metropolitan State University of Denver in which “. .  . respondents reported unexpectedly large numbers of cases of thyroid cancer and rare cancers.” The nurse presenting the information probably disappointed a large audience by saying “There is no way currently to determine whether those cancers identified occurred at higher rates in people who lived near Rocky Flats than they do in the general population.”

I became suspicious about the reports of thyroid cancers when I saw a television report of the meeting showing Kristen Iversen addressing the crowd. She published an autobiography of her experiences growing up near Rocky Flats. Her popular but technically flawed book mentions that many of her relatives and neighbors had thyroid problems. The book inferred that Rocky Flats was similar to the Chernobyl disaster, which resulted in numerous children developing thyroid cancer from the emissions of radioactive iodine. To the best of my knowledge, exposure to radioactive iodine is the primary cause of thyroid cancer, although there are undoubtedly some who develop it simply because it is in their DNA. Rocky Flats never had a criticality accident and didn’t process radioactive iodine.

A limited search found numerous articles describing thyroid cancer and the causes. One article had some very interesting observations. “People younger than 15 at the time of aboveground testing (between 1945 and 1963) who drank milk, and who lived in the Mountain West, Midwestern, Eastern, and Northeastern United States, probably have a higher thyroid cancer risk from exposure to I-131 in fallout than people who lived in other parts of the United States, who were over the age of 15 in the 1940s, or who did not drink milk.”

It would be interesting to learn how many of the respondents to the survey claiming thyroid problems and were younger than 15 while aboveground testing was proceeding and drank milk. I’m cynically skeptical that question won’t be asked, since the objective of the study is to blame Rocky Flats for any and all health problems. The reality is that the Colorado nuisance law apparently doesn’t even require actual health effects. All that is required is to prove the mere presence of the Rocky Flats Plant created some sort of concern, irritation, or anxiety. Perhaps doing health surveys and studying the results isn’t need to collect money.

Objectivity of Rocky Flats Reporting

A recent Denver Post article by Bruce Finley has some interesting information about plans for opening twenty miles of hiking, cycling, and horseback riding and a visitor center on the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in 2018. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is holding public meeting to solicit public input. They undoubtedly will have the usual activists show up to warn of the supposed dangers. Dave Lucas, The refuge manager mentions in the article, “Downwind of the plant there’s residual contamination. Plutonium is one of the contaminants, but it is at levels that were determined to be acceptable.” As I understand the plans, the trails being considered are on the dominantly upwind side of the plant where plutonium concentrations are about the same as fallout levels all throughout Colorado.

One paragraph in the article discusses “…the apparent end of litigation with surrounding suburbs over roadways has the cleared the way for work on relatively undisturbed wildlife habitat that extends into the mountain foothills.” I was unaware that the litigation had ended, but that is good news.

There are some inflammatory comments scattered through the article. For example, it says the “…feds…hope to tell the Rocky Flats story of evolution from American Indian hunting grounds through the Cold War military activities that ruined the environment and workers’ health to the current open oasis amid dust-churning monster house development.” Another short sentence proclaims, “Plutonium-tainted and other radioactive waste was buried at Rocky Flats causing an environmental disaster.” It’s no wonder why some people might avoid going to the refuge when it opens to take a beautiful and safe hike.

Better Cruel Truth, Darn It

In my years at Rocky Flats, I occasionally heard rumors that low levels of radiation were good for health – that Rocky Flats workers were healthier than they “should” be, that workers in the plutonium area got very few colds. One friend suggested it was because smoking was banned in so many places, while others said it was just because you had to be healthy to hold down the job. I shrugged it all off.

Now I’ve run into a Skeptiod episode by Brian Dunning entitled “Radiation Hormesis: Is It Good for You?” Dunning was, as you might guess, skeptical, in part because

“Those trumpeting the benefits of radiation hormesis the loudest are often the same ones who deny anthropogenic global warming. This may be the result of people getting their information from political sources rather than from science sources”

and cited other warning signs that the position may not be science

Dunn provides background, explaining the difference between ionizing vs non ionizing radiation and a dose-response curve. He notes that the “linear no threshold” approach used with radiation, which assumes there is no safe level of exposure, has been adopted to be “prudent.” Since we all live bathed in background radiation, “it seems reasonable to infer that very low doses of even ionizing radiation are harmless.” Even the Health Physics Society has stated “no threshold” is an oversimplification.

The hypothetical radiation hormesis says the actual dose-response curve is U-shaped, starting at zero response to zero exposure, but then dipping down below the zero-risk line

“indicating radiation at that dose actually reduces the risk of cancer, less risk than you’d have with no radiation at all — and then, as the dosage increases, the curve comes back into the increased risk zone, and continues curving upward as the dosage increase.”

After a literature review, Dunn says hormesis

“is one claim of a pattern that some say can be found in the data, but that most dismiss because the data is simply far too noisy at that low level to support the drawing of any conclusions at all.”

So there may be a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect – all tiny responses lost in the noise of the data. I’m not surprised – though maybe a little disappointed. With so much hyperbolic criticism of Rocky Flats, it would be ironically delightful if working there improved my health. Too bad the science isn’t there. I do believe, as Edward Abbey said, better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.

Rocky Flats Lawsuit Settlement

A friend loaned me a pamphlet he received about the settlement, which had been sent from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. The proposed $375 million dollar settlement involves people who owned property near the Rocky Flats Plant on June 7, 1989 or are heirs to someone who did. A rough area of the settlement area begins from the plant and extends to slightly below 120th on the north, a bit beyond Wadsworth but not to Highway 36 on the east, and more or less to 72nd on the south in a sort of circular outline. There is a website that allows you to enter an address to see whether it is included in the area.


The class action lawsuit was originally filed January 30, 1990 under the Price-Anderson Act and under the Colorado state nuisance and trespass law. The jury found for the plaintiffs, but the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the judgment in 2010. “The Tenth Circuit held that the Price-Anderson Act required Plaintiffs to prove additional and more severe harm than would be required under Colorado state nuisance law.” My interpretation of the ruling was that Price-Anderson required actual damages to have occurred and that perceived damages were inadequate to justify an award. It was also ruled that jury instructions were correct for some aspects but incorrect in others.

The complicated legal tussles continued with the plaintiffs asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Tenth Circuit’s action. I thought the Court had decided not to hear the case, but the pamphlet states that the settlement was reached “…before the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the petitions… The plaintiffs asked the Tenth Circuit to consider an award under the Colorado nuisance law, and the Court agreed, ruling “…that Plaintiff’s nuisance claims were not preempted by the Price-Anderson Act.” Continue reading

Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi

atoms-in-the-familyI obtained this book by Laura Fermi published in 1954 by my usual method of interlibrary loan. It is an excellent book that gives personal insights into Enrico and many other of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent companion to the book by Leona Woods reviewed last week, and readers shouldn’t become accustomed to having a review posted each week. I’m doing more writing than reading lately. Also, I once again am posting a summary of the book complete with page numbers for reference, which is how I usually save information to be used in my book about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the Rocky Flats Plant.

The first sections of the book introduce Laura Capon and Enrico Fermi in Italy when they first became acquainted in Italy. It progresses to their wedding and the beginning of the troubles for Jews imposed by Mussolini (Il Duce). Laura was a non-practicing Jew, so she and the children were all at risk. She tells of how their lives became increasingly dangerous until the family left Italy by travelling to Sweden to accept Enrico’s Noble Prize and made it to the United States. The “becoming Americanized” is fascinating reading. Laura’s father, an Italian naval officer, was at first not concerned about the actions that Mussolini took in the early days. “Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions.” 5-6

The book describes the childhoods and families of the Capons and the Fermis. As an example, a traumatic loss struck the Fermis when Giulio, the oldest son, died of complications from an abscess in the throat. (Laura and Enrico would name their son Giulio.) The family moved into a melancholy existence and Enrico filled his life with studying and outdoor activities. It wasn’t long before his teachers declared that he was “exceptional.” His academic achievements and early career are described. 15-32 Much of one chapter is devoted to his yellow Peugeot, which is described as having a top speed of 20 mph. The next chapter describes the Fermi’s early married years 33-68

Fermi began to achieve wide recognition for his brilliance and was named to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929. Enrico and Laura spent two months of 1930 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also spent some time in New York City, where Laura was astonished to note “…with a shock the existence of tattoos…on the bare arms of summer riders, in the most civilized city in the world.” (What would she think today?) They were often asked what they thought of Mussolini, which was “…indicative of the great interest fascism had aroused in the United States. Those were good times for fascism, which was looked upon with tolerance, often with sympathy, both inside Italy and abroad.” 73-81 Continue reading

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading