|HERE YOU'LL FIND...|
|What Happened at Hanford|
This publication presents some basic information about Hanford, the radiation it released and how people were exposed to the radioactive contamination. It also provides an introduction to the possible health effects from radiation exposure. Because the largest estimated exposure from Hanford could affect the thyroid gland, this publication includes a special section on thyroid disease. Also included are descriptions of HHIN publications that offer further information.
WHAT HAPPENED AT HANFORD
Because of the secrecy surrounding nuclear weapons production, the public did not know much about Hanford's operational details until 1986. By February of that year, citizen pressure had forced the U.S. Department of Energy to release 19,000 pages of Hanford historical documents that had been previously unavailable to the public. These pages revealed there had been huge releases of radioactive materials into the environment that contaminated the Columbia River and more than 75,000 square miles of land. Many people were outraged at the four decades of secrecy and deception.1 They felt they had been betrayed by their own government. They demanded to know how the government could have kept such dangers secret for so long.
For More Information
The Release of Radioactive Materials from Hanford: 1944-1972 --- Discusses what is known about
how much radiation was released from Hanford into the air, water, and soil. It also
describes the December 1949 "Green Run," Hanford's largest single release of radiation.
Potential Health Problems from Exposure to
Selected Radionuclides: Plutomium, Strontium, Cerium and Ruthenium --- Presents
details of the release of Hanford's radiation in the form of particles (iodine-131 was
released as a gas). Also described are some of the health effects that have been linked to
specific radioactive elements.
Hot Spots: Weather and Hanford's Radiation Releases
to the Air --- Many people in the Northwest remember the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption
and how the ash settled in distinct patterns as carried by the changeable winds. Many
downwinders wonder how the winds may have carried Hanford's radiation that went into
the air. This publication describes the wind patterns and how they might have
affected the doses people received.
Radionuclides in the Columbia River: Possible Health Problems
in Humans and Effects on Fish --- Describes how Hanford released radioactive
materials into the Columbia River, 1944-1971. It also discusses some of the health effects
that have been linked to exposure to specific radioactive elements. Included is a
summary of studies that have been conducted on fish and other aquatic creatures to
determine Hanford's impact on them.
The Release of Radioactive Materials from Hanford: 1944-1972 --- Discusses what is known about how much radiation was released from Hanford into the air, water, and soil. It also describes the December 1949 "Green Run," Hanford's largest single release of radiation.
Potential Health Problems from Exposure to Selected Radionuclides: Plutomium, Strontium, Cerium and Ruthenium --- Presents details of the release of Hanford's radiation in the form of particles (iodine-131 was released as a gas). Also described are some of the health effects that have been linked to specific radioactive elements.
Hot Spots: Weather and Hanford's Radiation Releases to the Air --- Many people in the Northwest remember the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption and how the ash settled in distinct patterns as carried by the changeable winds. Many downwinders wonder how the winds may have carried Hanford's radiation that went into the air. This publication describes the wind patterns and how they might have affected the doses people received.
Radionuclides in the Columbia River: Possible Health Problems in Humans and Effects on Fish --- Describes how Hanford released radioactive materials into the Columbia River, 1944-1971. It also discusses some of the health effects that have been linked to exposure to specific radioactive elements. Included is a summary of studies that have been conducted on fish and other aquatic creatures to determine Hanford's impact on them.
After the plutonium was removed from the reactors, it had to be separated and purified for use in nuclear weapons. Separating the plutonium resulted in radiation being released into the air. Winds carried Hanford's airborne radiation throughout eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, northern Idaho and into Montana and Canada. Food grown on contaminated fields, and milk cows grazing there, transferred the radiation to people who ate the food and drank the milk. The years of highest releases to the air were 1944 through 1951, with 1945 being the largest.
HANFORD RADIATION STUDIES BEGUN
Because of public concern and anger over the once-secret information, a scientific panel, the Hanford Health Effects Review Panel, was convened in September 1986 to examine the newly released documents. The panel recommended that two studies be done to determine (1) how much radiation people had been exposed to and (2) if there was an unusually high rate of thyroid disease among those exposed. Thyroid disease was selected because the type of radiation that caused the highest exposures downwind from Hanford, iodine-131, concentrates in the thyroid gland. In previous studies of other populations, exposure to radiation has been shown to cause thyroid disease, including cancerous and non-cancerous thyroid growths.
To determine how much radiation people were exposed to, the U.S. Department of Energy began the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project (HEDR) in 1987. Funding for HEDR was transferred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1992. The reason for this transfer was the Department of Energy's conflict of interest since the Department also is in charge of Hanford operations. Some people remained skeptical because CDC kept Battelle Memorial Institute as the contractor to do most of the HEDR work. Battelle has been a Hanford contractor since 1965.
For More Information
|Readers interested in learning about how radioactive materials function once they are inside the human body can request a copy of Radioactivity in the Body. This HHIN publication lists which organs in the body received the largest dose from nearly a dozen radioactive materials.|
In addition to the HEDR project (to determine how much radiation people were exposed to), the federal government sponsored a second study, the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study (HTDS). CDC began HTDS in 1989 and plans to complete it in late 1998. CDC has contracted with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle to carry out the study. The HTDS is investigating whether thyroid disease, including thyroid cancer, is increased among people who were exposed as infants and children to iodine-131 from Hanford. By its completion, the study will have examined over 3,000 people for thyroid disease.
RADIATION HEALTH EFFECTS: HOW RADIATION CAUSES HARM
To understand why cancer and thyroid disease are of concern, it is useful to know how radiation can cause harm to the body. When radiation enters the body and hits a cell, one of four things can happen:
Internal and External Exposure to Radiation
|Radiation exposure may be internal or external. Internal exposure comes from eating or drinking contaminated food or water, or from breathing contaminated air. A radioactive substance can also enter the body through cuts in the skin. Alpha and beta radiation contribute to internal exposure. External exposure can come from beta, gamma and X-ray radiation that penetrates the body. Both internal and external radiation can directly harm cells. Exposure to Hanford's radiation was primarily internal. Exposure from the atomic bombings in Japan was primarily external.|
If the damage to a cell is not repaired and is passed on to new cells (number 3 above), a cancer can begin to grow. It may take years or even decades for a cancer to grow large enough to be discovered. This period between exposure to radiation and the discovery of cancer or other health effects is called the latent period. The latent period varies for different types of health effects and different types of radiation doses.
When radiation kills a cell (number 4 above), there will be acute (immediate) health effects if the dose is high and many cells die. An example of an acute effect is death within days or weeks from radiation sickness, as happened to the highly exposed people in the atomic bombings in Japan. Other acute effects include vomiting and loss of hair. From what is currently known, doses to people from Hanford's environmental releases were not enough to produce immediate or direct effects.
Difference Between Exposure and Dose
Radiation can cause most types of cancer. Some cells or organs - breast tissue and the thyroid, for example - are very sensitive to radiation. Others, such as bone cells, are not as sensitive.
Whether or not exposure to radiation will cause cancer depends on a variety of factors. These include: the amount and type of radiation dose; individual characteristics that make some people more susceptible to cancer than others; age; gender; whether the exposure occurred over a short or a long time; and the presence of other substances that enhance the cancer-causing power of radiation.
There has been much controversy over the extent to which low-dose radiation causes cancer. One of the more widely-known reports was published in 1990 by the Fifth Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations (known as BEIR V).2 BEIR V concluded that information from scientific studies about people receiving low doses was insufficient to determine cancer risk.
Overall, BEIR V concluded that cancer risk from radiation exposure is higher than regulatory and advisory groups had previously described. BEIR V estimated cancer risk but acknowledged uncertainty concerning these risk estimates. BEIR V estimated that for every 10,000 adults exposed over a short time period to 1 rem of radiation, eight would die from radiation-induced cancer.3 If the exposure took place during childhood, the risk for fatal cancer was estimated to be twice as high. BEIR V also concluded that when the dose was received over a long time, the lifetime risk of death from cancer was lower by a factor of 2 or more than if the same dose had been received over a short time. Most Hanford exposures occurred over long times (months, years or decades).
Additionally, two other scientists have been sharply critical of BEIR V. Rudi H. Nussbaum and Wolfgang Kohnlein have pointed out a number of inconsistencies within the BEIR V report. They also argue that studies published after BEIR V support the position that there is a greater risk of health effects from chronic low doses than is reflected in current radiation protection regulations.6
Why There Aren't Clear Answers
Scientists are unable to determine with certainty the relationship between cancer and radiation exposure. Many people find this frustrating. However, it is important to know
For More Information...
The Network offers two publications that explore some of
the problems in the study of radiation-induced cancer and the resulting controversy.
Epidemiology: Understanding Health Studies explains the basics of studying disease in human populations. It also summarizes five past studies on the possible health effects of Hanford's releases on the public.
Health Risk Viewpoints: Radiation and Cancer presents the opinions of three scientists. Each was asked to comment on whether people exposed to radiation released from Hanford have an increased risk for developing cancer.
The type of radiation that caused the highest doses downwind from Hanford, iodine-131, concentrates in the thyroid gland. Exposure to some types of radiation has been shown to cause thyroid disease, including cancerous and noncancerous thyroid growths. The HTDS is gathering information on all types of thyroid disease, whether or not previous studies have suggested links between radiation exposure and thyroid disease. While the HTDS will not be completed until late 1998, thyroid disease studies from other types of radiation exposures may offer some comparisons to the Hanford situation.
Studies of Environmental Exposure to Iodine-131
People who lived downwind (downwinders) from the Nevada Test Site were exposed to nuclear fallout, including iodine-131, caused by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. A study of these downwinders suggests a dose-response relationship between the occurrence of thyroid growths (nodules and cancer) and iodine exposure. In this setting, a "dose-response relationship" means that the risk of having a thyroid growth (the response) increases as the dose increases. In other words, people with higher doses have greater risk than people with lower doses. The scientists who did the study concluded that the radioactive iodine exposure "probably caused" between one and 12 of the 19 cases of thyroid growths among the study population of about 2,500.7
In 1954 Marshall Islanders were exposed to radioactive fallout from a nuclear weapon test in the South Pacific. They were exposed to some iodine-131, but most of the thyroid exposure came from other radioactive forms of iodine. The Marshall Islanders suffered both acute and delayed effects from radiation. Eight years after the blast, some Marshall Islanders developed thyroid disease. After 27 years, the Marshall Islanders had an increased rate of hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland) and both noncancerous and cancerous thyroid growths. It is difficult to say that it was the iodine-131 or the other radioactive iodines alone that caused these thyroid problems because the Marshall Islanders also received external radiation.
Children Living Near Chernobyl
In 1995 scientists reported that the rates of thyroid cancer were significantly increased among young people who were exposed to Chernobyl's radioactive fallout.8 Before the 1986 accident, childhood thyroid cancer in the areas around Chernobyl was rare. The current rates are up to 200 times higher than normal. The rates in the table below are the number of thyroid cancers per million people. Childhood thyroid cancers are those thyroid cancers diagnosed before the children turn 15 years old.
Most (about 85 percent) of the Chernobyl thyroid dose came from iodine-131 and was received over a short time. The rest of the thyroid dose came from other radioactive isotopes of iodine. At Hanford, nearly all of the thyroid dose was from iodine-131 and was received over a number of years. HEDR estimated that children living downwind from Hanford received total thyroid doses in the range of 3 to 235 rad for the period 1944 through 1951. Because of uncertainties, the estimated dose could have been as high as 870 rad.10
Until further studies around Chernobyl are completed, it is not clear if
radioactive iodine was the only cause of the
high rates of thyroid cancer. Among other possible contributors were an iodine deficiency in the exposed
population before the accident and a higher than normal sensitivity to the harmful effects
of radiation exposure among some of those exposed.11 Another contributor could have
been the greatly increased number of thyroid examinations after the accident.12
| Childhood Thyroid Cancer Near Chernobyl9|
(before and after the 1986 accident)
|No. of |
|Rate*||No. of |
|Rate*||No. of |
|Gomel region, Belarus||1||0.5||21||10.5||143||96.4||15 to 570 rad|
|Northern Ukraine||1||0.1||21||2.0||97||11.5||5 to 200 rad|
|Bryansk and Kaluga |
|0||0||3||1.2||20||10.0||6 to 180 rad|
|* number of thyroid cancers per million people|
Medical Exposures to Iodine-131
Much of what is currently known about the health effects of iodine-131
comes from studies of the medical uses of iodine-131. One group of people exposed to
iodine-131 received a one-time high dose (thousands of rad) to treat hyperthyroidism (an overactive
thyroid gland). Another group
received a one-time low dose (50-100 rad) of iodine-131 for tests to diagnose thyroid
disease. Studies of these two groups of people do not show any link between iodine-131 and thyroid cancer.
|For More Information...|
|The Network has developed a Health Bulletin that presents summary information about Hanford's radioactive releases along with a brief screening and assessment guidelines for thyroid disease.|
However, the length of time people were studied varied. The longest study followed people an average of 20 years. Scientists believe that the latent period for thyroid cancer can range from five to more than 40 years. They believe that the very high doses of iodine-131 used to treat people with hyperthyroidism result in killing off cells so that cancer cannot develop.
External Gamma and X-ray Radiation of the Thyroid
While there is not conclusive evidence linking iodine-131 and thyroid cancer, there is a link between thyroid cancer and exposure to X-rays and gamma radiation. Studies of people who received X-ray treatments of the head and neck show that X-rays can cause thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer was the first solid tumor to show an increased rate in Japanese atomic bomb survivors who were exposed to gamma radiation.
Parathyroid glands help maintain the level of calcium in the body and are located around the thyroid. Studies of people receiving X-ray treatments to the head and neck have demonstrated a higher rate of hyperparathyroidism than expected. Further, those people who had hyperparathyroidism and a history of radiation treatments also had a greater frequency of thyroid disease than those who had hyperparathyroidism but did not have radiation treatments.13 Radioactive iodine in the thyroid exposes the parathyroid which may cause tumors in the parathyroid glands. The Hanford Thyroid Disease Study is investigating whether hyperparathyroidism is increased among people exposed to Hanford's radioactive releases.
OTHER RADIATION HEALTH EFFECTS
Although cancer is the most studied of all radiation health effects, exposure to radiation can harm the human body in other ways. The following are brief summaries of some other radiation health effects. Publications are available from the Network on some of these health effects.
The immune system is a complex network in the body that helps fight diseases and foreign substances. Studies have shown that radiation exposure can weaken the immune system. Autoimmune diseases are those in which a person's own immune system attacks one or more tissues or organs. These diseases include multiple sclerosis and lupus. While there have not been any studies concerning Hanford and autoimmune diseases, some Hanford-area residents are concerned that their exposure to radioactive materials has triggered such diseases. They believe that there are a higher than normal number of autoimmune disease cases among those who were exposed. For more information on the immune system and radiation's effects on it, see Immune System and Radiation.
Genetic Effects and Birth Defects
Genetic effects of radiation exposure occur when radiation damage to a parent's DNA code is transmitted to a child. (The DNA code contains information required for the development and maintenance of all organisms.) Genetic effects caused by radiation fall into two categories: (1) effects that appear in the children of an exposed parent and (2) effects that appear in later generations.
For more information about these health effects, see HHIN's Genetic Effects and Birth Defects from Radiation Exposure. This publication includes a summary of a birth defects study of children born in the Hanford area. The study found an increase in one kind of birth defects, neural tube defects. But the study's scientists did not attribute this increase to Hanford radiation exposure.
Other Effects on the Lives of Those Who Were Exposed
The secrecy surrounding the Hanford releases, the involuntary nature of the exposure and the lack of information about radiation health effects have left some people understandably frustrated, mistrustful and angry. Many people report feeling that the emotional and economic toll has been great. This is especially true for those who have thyroid diseases and other illnesses and whose family members, friends and neighbors are ill or have died. For additional reading on these aspects, see HHIN's Coping with Uncertainty and Illness: Concerns of Hanford Downwinders.
Many callers to the Hanford Health Information Lines have reported concerns about their health. Scientific research has not - or at least not yet - related health problems to exposure to radiation released from Hanford. However, some downwinders do have health problems and believe that these problems are related to Hanford. The following personal perspective is offered to help readers understand these experiences and concerns.
"When I arrived in Richland in 1954, I was healthy, happy, full of energy and a bride of two weeks. It wasn't long before I began having horrific migraines, and unexplained attacks of vomiting and diarrhea that sent me to the hospital because I was dehydrated. Tests could not explain my symptoms - yet they persisted. I was weak to the point of exhaustion. And I lost an alarming amount of weight.
Within a few years it became impossible for me to participate in family and social events. More often than not, I stayed home and on more than one occasion, my husband and children went on vacation trips without me. Two of my pregnancies ended in miscarriages. By my early 30s, I was a semi-invalid. I was diagnosed with endometriosis (growth of uterine tissue outside the uterus). When I was 35, I was rushed to the hospital unconscious and hemorrhaging. An emergency hysterectomy saved my life. Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Was it connected to living there (near Hanford)? The doctors didn't connect it - yet?
Both of our children were born with immune dysfunctions. A simple cold was an alarming matter. They were often anemic and our pediatrician tested them for leukemia. Both had skin cancer. My adult daughter has endometriosis. Connected? I wonder...
Without warning, my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It had already metastasized to his kidney, then to his liver. He died in 1990. His question was, 'Are our medical problems because we lived in Richland for 25 years?' It weighs heavily upon my heart. Is there a connection? Studies and medical monitoring may one day answer his question. We greatly miss his loving presence in our lives."
- Name withheld by request.
1 - For further reading about Hanford, secrecy and deception, see Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal by Michael D'Antonio (Crown Pub. 1993); The Dragon's Tail: Radiation Safety in the Manhattan Project, 1942-1946 by Barton C. Hacker (University of California 1987); On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site by Michele Stenehjem Gerber (University of Nebraska 1992); and Sordid Sorcery: The History of Hanford's Deception by the Hanford Education Action League (HEAL 1992).
2 - National Research Council (BEIR V). Health Effects of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation. National Academy Press, 1990. BEIR V was a committee of 17 scientists from the National Academy of Sciences. The chair of BEIR V was Arthur C. Upton.
3 - BEIR V, p. 162.
4 - T. Straume, et al. "Neutron Discrepancies in the DS86 Hiroshima Dosimetry System." Health Physics, October 1992, Vol. 63, No. 4, pp. 421-426. In 1992, Straume was with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. His colleagues were from SAIC in San Diego, the University of Rochester (N.Y.) and Hiroshima University.
5 - J.W. Gofman. Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure: An Independent Analysis. Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1990, chapter 25, p. 15. Gofman is Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.
6 - R.H. Nussbaum and Wolfgang Kohnlein. "Inconsistencies and Open Questions Regarding Low-Dose Health Effects of Ionizing Radiation." Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 102, No. 8, August 1994, pp. 656-667. Nussbaum is Professor Emeritus of Physics and Environmental Sciences at Portland (OR) State University. Kohnlein is professor and director of the Institute for Radiation Biology at the University of Munster in Germany. See also "Health Consequences of Exposures to Ionizing Radiation from External and Internal Sources: Challenges to Radiation Protection Standards and Biomedical Research," Medicine and Global Survival, Vol. 2, No. 4, December 1995, pp. 198-213.
7 - R.A. Kerber, et al. "A Cohort Study of Thyroid Disease in Relation to Fallout From Nuclear Weapons Testing." Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 270, No. 17, November 3, 1993, p. 2082.
8 - V.A. Stsjazhko, et al. "Childhood Thyroid Cancer Since Accident at Chernobyl" (letter). British Medical Journal, Vol. 310, March 25, 1995, p. 801.
9 - Table is adapted from V.A. Stsjazhko, et al. "Childhood Thyroid Cancer Since Accident at Chernobyl" (letter). British Medical Journal, Vol. 310, March 25, 1995, p. 801.
10 - Technical Steering Panel of the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project. Representative Hanford Radiation Dose Estimates, Revision 1. April 21, 1994, p. 2.
11 - M. Balter. "Children Become the First Victims of Fallout." Science, Vol. 272, April 19, 1996, p. 359.
12 - E. Ron, J. Lubin, and A.B. Schneider. "Thyroid Cancer Incidence." Nature, Vol. 360, November 12, 1992, p. 113. Ron and Lubin are with the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program at the National Cancer Institute. Schneider is with Humana and Michael Reese hospitals at the University of Illinois.
13 - A. Katz and G.D. Braunstein. "Clinical, Biochemical, and Pathologic Features of Radiation-Associated Hyperpara-thyroidism." Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 143, January 1983, pp. 79-82.
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