Growing up in southeastern Washington State, Trisha Pritikin played among the waters and islands of the Columbia River and gave little thought to the looming neighbor upstream: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a sprawling complex of factories where, beginning in the mid-1940s, the U.S. government secretly manufactured plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Pritikin, whose parents worked at the Hanford site, was unaware that radioactive residues from the facility had not only contaminated her riverside playgrounds but had also leached into her yard, tainted the milk she drank, and possibly even been tracked across the rugs in her family’s home.
By the late 1980s, it became clear to Pritikin that living near Hanford posed serious health risks. At age 38 she was diagnosed with severe hypothyroidism, which caused joint deterioration and other debilitating ailments. Her father, who worked at Hanford as a nuclear engineer, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which rapidly spread to his lungs and brain; he died in 1996. Three years later, her mother succumbed to malignant melanoma. Her older brother had died in 1947 amid an unexplained spike in baby deaths near the 560-square-mile reservation, which today is home to the nation’s largest environmental cleanup effort.
Pritikin’s illness, coupled with the release of federal documents that showed, for the first time, extensive radioactive releases from Hanford, inspired her to activism. In 1989, she organized a meeting in California of other Hanford-area expatriates who also may have suffered health problems associated with radiation exposure. Her scrutiny of Hanford increased as, one after another, her parents were overcome by illnesses she believes were tied to their workplace.
In 2000, after a decade of trying to piece together the facts surrounding her family’s afflictions, Pritikin was invited to join the Advisory Committee on Energy-Related Epidemiologic Research—a federal panel made up mostly of scientists—as a non-voting community representative. The committee, known by the acronym ACERER, had been created in 1992 to help the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services make sure that its research into the potential health effects of nuclear production and testing was scientifically sound, and that HHS achieved its goal of answering questions that “downwinders” like Pritikin had been asking for years: whether there were links, for example, between releases at federal nuclear sites and diseases such as thyroid cancer.
By the time George W. Bush took office in 2001, ACERER was already reeling from a three-year struggle with HHS. At issue: The panel wanted the U.S. government to help Americans who had been affected by nuclear weapons testing. Starting in 1995, its members pushed a reluctant—but ultimately yielding—Clinton administration to release a National Cancer Institute study that concluded that nuclear fallout had affected Americans nationwide, not just those living close to the Nevada Test Site where, from 1951 to 1962, nearly 100 above-ground nuclear tests were conducted. As a result, later studies estimated, as many as 212,000 people were at elevated risk of developing thyroid cancer.
The NCI’s findings brought a new sense of urgency to ACERER, which in 1998 recommended that the government notify Americans known to have received high doses of radiation, educate them about potential risks, and consider providing them with free screening for thyroid disease and cancer.
It was around this time, members say, that the committee’s relationship with HHS—particularly the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—soured, with meetings suddenly seeming like carefully scripted sessions in which government officials presented decisions they had already made. “We began to wonder, ‘What are we doing here?'” said Jack Geiger, professor emeritus of the City University of New York’s medical school.
“A Black Hole”
By 1999, the committee’s fallout recommendations “seemed to have disappeared into a black hole,” said former panelist Owen Hoffman, an environmental scientist in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Relations became even more strained when some ACERER members openly criticized a CDC-sponsored study that found no links between radiation exposure and thyroid cancer near Hanford. (The National Academy of Sciences later found shortcomings in the study.) One of them, Tim Connor, who had been the driving force behind the proposed thyroid screening program, resigned, saying he’d grown tired of being stonewalled by CDC staff. “It was depressing and frustrating,” Connor said. “We were in the best position to help the nation respond to this historic problem. Instead, we hit a dead end.”
In response, Michael McGeehin, a division director at CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH), characterized the panel’s fallout recommendations as “a general public health program that ACERER was not chartered to try to implement or even give advice on.” He added that ACERER members “felt constrained by that.”
In February 2000, Geiger and two other ACERER members wrote a letter to then-director of NCEH, Richard Jackson. There, they expressed concerns that CDC was under “outside pressures that reduce its responsiveness to the public.” They said NCEH staff had told them that their reluctance to address the fallout recommendations was “the result of political pressure from outside of CDC, perhaps even from the White House.” In their view, the committee’s main purpose had been subverted.
In February 2001, shortly after President Bush took office, CDC officials—accompanied by a conflict-resolution specialist—met with ACERER’s members to consider the panel’s fate. ACERER, it was agreed, should continue its work, although perhaps with a clearer charter. But no meetings were held in 2001, and the following February HHS quietly allowed the committee to expire—a move that caught even the panel’s chairman, John Bagby, off-guard. “I thought we had a lot to do yet,” he said, “but for some reason the new administration didn’t want it, so they just dropped it.”
Current and former CDC officials say they can’t recall the precise circumstances of ACERER’s demise, although they note that the agency’s focus shifted to bioterrorism after the September 11 attacks, and that funding for radiation research from the Energy Department began to evaporate. “The agency has mandates and has constraints on its resources, and it has to stay within the bounds of what is mandated,” McGeehin said.
But some former panelists believe the decision to kill ACERER was purely political. “We were raising issues that the Bush administration didn’t want to deal with,” said Seth Tuler, a senior researcher at the Social and Environmental Research Institute in Greenfield, Mass. “Not even in the Clinton years was this topic a priority.” Trisha Pritikin, who is still battling ailments that she blames on Hanford, is among those distraught over the wasted effort: “All my family was killed and no one has helped us.”