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Hanford and Human Health

Nuclear weapons production has exposed workers and off-site residents to a wide variety of radiation and nonradioactive chemicals. A complete understanding of the extent of exposure and resulting health risk would depend on a fastidious health and exposure database, which does not exist and is unlikely to ever be constructed. But we can answer the following questions about health risk from Hanford.

What is radiation? How long does it last?

Radiation is energy emitted in particles or waves. We're familiar with forms of non-ionizing radiation such as light and radio waves. The radiation discussed in this booklet is much higher energy radiation that can break apart atoms—ionization—, damage or kill living cells and alter genes. Types of ionizing radiation range from alpha particles, that don't travel fast or far but can cause a lot of harm when ingested or inhaled, to gamma rays that can penetrate several inches of lead or several feet of concrete.

The half-life of a radioactive substance is the time required for it to lose 50 percent of its activity by decay. The half-lives of radioactive materials produced at Hanford over the last half-century range from a fraction of a second to billions of years. The main Hanford product, plutonium-239, has a half-life of over 24,000 years. At this rate of decay, the plutonium produced at Hanford will take 200,000 years or more to become stable nonradioactive material1 -at least as long as Homo sapiens has walked the earth!

What are the risks of radiation?

Exposures can occur from external sources (gamma or x-rays) or internal sources (rays and particles from radioactive substances entering the body by inhalation, ingestion or wounds.) Radiation can pass through a person without harming any cells, or it can hit cells, damaging or destroying them. At lower doses, radiation can damage cells, eventually causing cancer or genetic mutations that adversely affect the next generation. Even inhaling the smallest particle of an intense alpha-emitter such as plutonium-239 could cause cancer. Acute radiation effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever and hemorrhage. High doses are lethal. At DOE facilities, including Hanford, studies of workers exposed to radiation show evidence of excess cancers including lung, brain, bladder, myeloma, leukemia and other lymphatic cancers, stomach, respiratory, laryngeal and trachea cancer.2 See the following graph. Click to view larger image

How is radiation measured?

Radiation can be measured in units (sieverts or REM) that take into account the biological effect of different types of radiation. One sievert equals 100 REM. Doses of radiation greater than 3-4 sieverts or 300-400 REM can cause death. Click to view larger image 

The above graph shows how the maximum permissible dose of radiation has been reduced many times over the last century as we have learned more about the long-term effects of radiation exposure.

In 1991 the International Commission on Radiation Protection recommended an annual whole body dose limit of 20 millisieverts for workers, but the U.S. still permits commercial nuclear workers to receive up to 50 millisieverts. Effects at low doses (10 millisieverts or less) are uncertain, but it is widely thought that any dose may be harmful to susceptible individuals. Without treatment, a dose of about four sieverts or 400 REM for adults would cause half the exposed population to die in 60 days.

At Hanford, workers wear badges to measure the radiation dose they have received. All too often, to prevent getting a record of exposure that would block them from further work on a project, workers have temporarily removed their badges. Others were pressured to falsify exposure records.3

How accurate are the risks from radiation?

Current cancer risk rates are likely to underestimate the risk by a factor of ten or more.4 These risk estimates are heavily based on studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb survivors, which are flawed due to uncertain dose estimates and confounding exposures, and because when long-term studies finally did begin, people most susceptible to radiation had already died, leading to underestimation of the risks.5

Do the recommended doses protect us?

WPSR believes that current radiation standards do not adequately protect workers and the public. Many studies of nuclear workers show that cancer deaths increase with increased exposure to low level radiation, particularly among workers exposed at a greater age when they may be more genetically susceptible to DNA damage.6 In spite of past government assurances that nuclear weapons tests were safe, the National Cancer Institute's recent study indicates that tens of thousands of Americans can expect to get thyroid cancer from just one of the radioactive substances released by atmospheric bomb testing.7

We conclude that radiation protection standards must continue to be strengthened. Exposures permitted by present Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Department of Energy guidelines would lead to 1 in 300 excess cancer deaths in the general public and 1 in 8 among workers.8 No other causes of cancer are allowed such lax standards.

Will people who have been exposed to radiation get help?

In February 2000 the US Department of Energy (DOE) admitted for the first time that working in the nuclear weapons complex could have caused illness and death due to exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals. Soon after in a hearing, hundreds of former Hanford workers stated publicly what they weren't allowed to tell even their doctors during the Cold War.9 In October 2000 the US Congress and President Clinton signed into law the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Act, for which an estimated 4,000 workers could be eligible.10 As of April, 2002, " 24,000 workers nationalwide had filed claims, but fewer than 2,700 had been approved." (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 19, 2002, p. A13). The legislation does not address the health issues of workers families or non-worker citizens in the Hanford area who may also suffer from radiation induced illnesses.11

Have nonradioactive substances also harmed health?

DOE has not studied or documented the wide variety of nonradioactive but toxic substances used in weapons production. However, studies suggest that these chemicals have had serious health impacts. Some are Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxins (PBTs) that are persistent in the environment and become more concentrated as they are passed up the food chain. Workers' children can also be affected by such "take home" exposures as asbestos or lead.

Nonradioactive toxic substances and their effects include the following:12

  • Silica, if inhaled, can lead to lung disease (asbestosis and silicosis).
  • Heavy metals, including chromium, mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic, affect cell functioning. The most common targets are the kidneys and nervous system. Uranium has toxic effects in addition to its radioactivity.
  • Beryllium can sensitize the immune system, inflame the lungs and cause respiratory failure.
  • Acids can destroy cells on contact, easily burning skin, eyes, and scarring lung tissue.
  • Organic compounds, a wide variety of which are used in nuclear weapons production, are readily absorbed, and mainly affect the nervous system, liver, kidneys and skin. Contact with ground water contaminated with these compounds may cause cancer.

At Hanford hundreds of buried waste sites exist, many not yet even characterized, which will be sources for contamination for generations to come. Protecting humans and the environment from these hidden hazards will require persistent vigilance and public funding. But the challenge to health at Hanford is not just from on-site hazards. Much of the nation views Hanford as its nuclear dumpsite. Pressure on Hanford to accept waste from across the country even before its own wastes are characterized and contained is immense, and further threatens all Northwest citizens and their unique Columbia River environment.

  1. International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Plutonium: Deadly Gold of the Nuclear Age, International Physicians Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992.
  2. Occupational Illness Compensation for DOE Contractor Personnel, National Economic Council, 2000.
  3. Personal communication by Jim Thomas, Hanford Health Information Network, with retired Hanford worker, 1996.
  4. Wing, S. Statement to the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, July 18, 2000.
  5. Stewart, A. A-bomb data: Detection of bias in the life span study cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives 105:1519-21(1997).
  6. Richardson, DB, Wing, S, Radiation and mortality of workers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory: Possible associations for dose received at older ages. Environmental Health Perspectives 107: 649-656, 1999.
  7. National Cancer Institute. Estimated exposures and thyroid doses received by the American people from iodine-131 in fallout following Nevada atmospheric nuclear bomb tests, NIH Publication 97-4264, Washington, DC: National Cancer Institute, 1997.
  8. Government Accounting Office. Nuclear Health and Safety Consensus on acceptable radiation risk to the public is lacking. GAO/RCED-94-190. 1994. Washington, DC: US GAO.
  9. Galloway A. Hanford Workers finally free to tell of illnesses. Seattle Post-Intelligencer Feb. 3, 2000.
  10. Beauchesne A, Boese J. Cleaning up America's Nuclear Weapons Complex: A Governor's Guide, National Governors' Association (2000).
  11. Congress passes nuclear worker compensation legislation, Science for Democratic Action 9:1(2000).
  12. Sumner D, Hu H, Woodward, A. Chapter 4: Health Hazards of Nuclear Weapons Production, Nuclear Wastelands, MIT Press (1995).