a downwinder's story

Since the nuclear tragedy unfolded in Japan, it's again appropriate to think of how people in so many communities have been carelessly exposed to nuclear radiation. This story is from Steve Wagner, an Oakland peace activist who passed away on June 30th.

A Downwinder's Story
by Steve Wagner

I was born in "the sacrifice zone," i.e., downwind from the
Hanford Atomic Works, in 1949. The town my family lived in until 1957 was Albion, Washington.

Albion was a wonderful place to be a child. Little did we know what simply living downwind from Hanford was doing to our health.

There were only dirt roads in Albion, then, so every car that came through town would kick-up a dose of dust. We kids would play for hours in the fields around Albion, where the grass that the cows and goats would later eat grew. The cows and goats would consume radioactive iodine-131 that had settled on the grass. The radioactive iodine-131 would then be passed on to us children through their milk, concentrating in our developing thyroid glands. Playing in the fields we would be exposed to the radioactive iodine-131 pre-goat or cow. Farmers plowing nearby would raise even more dust that we would breathe, inhaling even more radioactive iodine-131 and other contaminants that had settled from the upwind Hanford Atomic Works.

Among my playmates as a child in Albion were my cousins, Jerry and Karen, both long dead. Karen died of leukemia at the age of 15, and Jerry died of a brain tumor when he was only 32. My family often wondered why Jerry and Karen had died at such early ages, and now we have a pretty good idea why.

Thinking of Jerry and Karen, and listening to the other downwinders' and atomic workers' wrenching testimony here, I feel fortunate to at this time have "only" thyroid disease for which I will have to take medication for the rest of my life.

My father likes to joke that "the two biggest lies are 'the check is in the mail' and 'we're from the government and we're here to help you.'" Speaking earlier with another person who testified today, I mentioned that because he had actually worked at Hanford, and lived in the area most of his life, his phone must be ringing off the hook, what with all the expensive studies of radioactive exposures that are being done. He got a good laugh out of that, and assured me that that wasn't happening.

Governmental spending of millions of dollars on studies while downwinders drop like flies without so much as an apology, much less well-deserved compensation, gives new meaning to the term "Studying it to death."

Other downwinders and former Hanford atomic workers have told of missing files, and dis- and misinformation. Similar stories are documented in the recent USA Today series about atomic workers and people who live near nuclear facilities. This same scenario is playing-out all over the United States, and the rest of the world. In their zeal to develop more and bigger weapons, governments have left a radioactive legacy that will affect not only the workers and downwinders, but our posterity as well through our damaged genes.

The Hanford Health Effects Subcommittee must recognize that there is a huge credibility gap between government agencies and what government agencies say and the public and what the public believes.

Recognition by this subcommittee of the needs of downwinders as evidenced by a recommendation that the standards used to evaluate workplace exposures be applied to downwinders, and a further recommendation that downwinders be eligible for compensation, would go a long way to bridge this credibility gap.

STEVE WAGNER is a member of Lake Merritt Neighbors Organized for Peace (LMNOP), a group which holds a weekly peace walk around Lake Merritt in Oakland each Sunday at 3 p.m.

The above was a Statement by Steve Wagner to the Hanford Environmental Effects Subcommittee, Meeting in Kennewick, Washington
Friday, January 26, 2001