Rocky Flats cancer study shows results 'not significantly different than expected'

DENVER – A state study of cancer rates in ten communities near Rocky Flats shows rates are “not significantly different than expected based on cancer rates in the remainder of the Denver metro area.”

The study, released Wednesday, examined esophagus, stomach, colon and rectum, liver, lung, prostate, bone, leukemia, lymphomas and brain and central nervous system cancers.

It did not look at thyroid cancer or other rare cancers that were identified as “something that stood out,” in an independent study by Metro State University and two other schools late last year.

Mike Van Dyke, chief of Environmental Epidemiology at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, told Denver7 that the state report issued this week looked at cancers from 1990 to 2014. He said it was an update of a 1998 report that looked at cancer rates from 1980 to 1989.

“All cancers combined in all ten of those communities around Rocky Flats were really no different than would be expected, compared to the rest of the metro area,” he said.

When asked why it was just the ten cancers that were studied, Van Dyke replied, “The ten cancers chosen in this study were chosen by the 1998 Rocky Flats Health Advisory Panel. These were cancers that were thought to be associated with plutonium exposure.”

Van Dyke said the current study did show significant elevated levels of lung, colorectal, esophagus and prostate cancer, offering an explanation for the findings.  

“The first three,” he said, “one of the primary risk factors is smoking...there were elevated rates of smoking where we found higher cancer rates.”

When asked how much more smoking, Van Dyke said he didn’t have the exact numbers at the top of his head but it was “definitely like 10 percent higher in some of those neighborhoods.”

Metro State Integrated Health Care Professor Carol Jensen helped conduct an independent health survey of people who lived “downwind” from the plant. Her survey, released last November, showed that thyroid cancer was the number two cancer reported. She said that was unusual. 

She also said that “rare” cancers made up nearly 50 percent of the cancers reported in her study.

On Friday, Jensen told Denver7 that she “doesn’t understand why thyroid cancer wasn’t part of the state’s study.”

Van Dyke said, “We are happy to look at those rare cancers, as well as thyroid cancer. We have reached out to the researchers to get that list and we will be providing similar documents when we get that information.”

Van Dyke added, "We have preliminarily looked at thyroid cancer in those communities and what we saw is that thyroid cancer… is not elevated.”

Downwinders say study is flawed

Some people question the validity of the state’s study.

Nick Hansen, the co-founder of Rocky Flats Downwinders, said health officials only looked at people who currently live in certain zip codes near Rocky Flats, to determine if any of them had any of the ten cancers being studied from 1990 - 2014.

Hansen said the study is flawed because the state didn’t track down people who lived in the area when the plant was in operation and who have since moved.

“They might have cancer,” he said.

Hansen said many people who lived near the former nuclear weapons plant had children.

“They’re in their 40s and 50s now,” he said. “I get phone calls every day from people who talk about the negative health effects they’re experiencing. They’re getting cancers earlier in life than they would otherwise expect and they’re being left out to dry.”

“I get the point,” Van Dyke said. “Some of those contaminants might be harmful to children, but without doing a multi-million-dollar study to try and follow all those people around, in and out of the area, it just can’t be done.”

“We’re not asking them to contact everybody,” Hansen counters. “We’re asking them to contact a significant sample size, or pay for someone independently to do so, and compare it to another part of the population that did not live next to Rocky Flats. It’s not rocket science.”

Hansen said the federal government recognized for the first time, in 2014, that workers at the plant were affected by radiation exposure.

“What’s the next step,” he asked. “Were residents in the area negatively affected? I mean, a chain link fence doesn’t stop radiation from escaping off the grounds of Rocky Flats.”

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