Rocky Flats 'downwind' health survey shows unusual rates of rare, thyroid cancers

ARVADA, Colo. -- The health issues faced by former employees at Rocky Flats are well documented.

What is less well known is whether radiation leaks impacted the health of people who live downwind.

On Friday, Metro State University and the Rocky Flats Downwinders issued preliminary results of a health survey designed to shed light on that issue.

A total of 1,745 residents who lived in the area between 120th Avenue and I-70 and between Highway 93 and I-25, from 1952 to 1992, took part in the survey.

“Two things stood out,” said Metro State Integrated Health Care Professor Carol Jensen, the lead investigator.  “Normally, we see breast cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer and colon cancer as the top four cancers.  In the study, we saw breast cancer, thyroid cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer. That’s unusual.”

Jensen said thyroid cancer is the ninth most common cancer in the U.S., but is the second most common in the neighborhoods near Rocky Flats, according to the survey.

Thyroid cancer can be caused by radiation, but Jensen said it is too early to know whether there is a link between the thyroid cancer cases and Rocky Flats.

“Nothing is definitive,” she said.

Jensen said the other unusual statistic found during the survey is the number of “rare” cancers.

Out of a total of 848 cancer cases reported during the survey, 48.8 percent were categorized as “rare.”

Jensen said in the general population, “rare” cancers only make up 25 percent of all cancers.

When it opened in 1952, Rocky Flats was part of a chain of nuclear weapons plants that helped keep peace during the Cold War, through the military doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

Kristen Iverson authored a book called “Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.”

She told survey participants that plant employees built a total of 70,000 plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, at an average cost of $4 million each.

Carl Campanella lived in one of the nearby neighborhoods until concern about radiation led him to pull up stakes.

He now lives in Brighton.

“In the last ten years, I lost two wonderful uncles that used to work at Rocky Flats,” he said. “One of them two years ago. He had no less than 50 cancerous tumors in his body.”

Jensen said more research is needed before they can try to link any of the cancers in the downwinders to Rocky Flats.

CU-Boulder Emeritus Professor of Biology Harvey Nichols told Denver7 about some specific research that might help with that determination.

“There is evidence that’s available in the isotopic fingerprinting of plutonium particles that might be found inside the tumor material that is being discarded daily,” he said.

Professor Jensen said that’s something she’d like to study if they can get a grant to do so.

The health survey is ongoing.

If you lived in the area around Rocky Flats during the years it was in operation, you are invited to take part in the survey.

To learn more about the survey and the Rocky Flats Downwinders’ click on this link: http://rockyflatsdownwinders.com/

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