Last week, a group of university researchers announced a plan to study whether people who lived downwind from the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant suffered health effects related to the facility. In its first week, the survey has already attracted about 2,000 respondents. “I think it’s going to be groundbreaking,” says Kristen Iversen, whose 2012 book Full Body Burden: Growing Up In The Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats helped inspire the health study.
Although activists have long said that radiological contamination in neighborhoods near the plant—located 16 miles northwest of Denver—caused increased rates of cancer and other illnesses, researchers say this study will be the first to systematically and broadly consider those claims. There have been previous attempts to link the nuclear plant to community health effects, notably by Jefferson County health official Carl Johnson in the early 1980s, but Iversen said the new survey will be the most comprehensive in terms of the years and geographical area it covers.
In the May issue of 5280, I profiled former FBI agent Jon Lipsky, who led a government raid of the Rocky Flats facility in 1989. Beginning in the early 1950s, workers at Rocky Flats manufactured plutonium pits, which create the triggering blast in thermonuclear weapons. After the raid, the government contractor that operated the facility was eventually found guilty of environmental crimes. The plant closed in 1992. Today, Rocky Flats is home to a national wildlife refuge that recently opened to the public for guided tours. And in recent years Lipsky has reemerged as a vocal opponent of allowing the public to access the site.
The new health survey was organized by the community group Rocky Flats Downwinders and is being overseen by a group of university professors led by Carol Jensen, a healthcare professor at Metropolitan State University (MSU) in Denver. Professors from the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University are also involved. According to an MSU press release announcing the survey, “the interdisciplinary group is the first of its kind to assist in researching the health impacts on residents who lived near the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.”
The survey seeks responses from people who lived within an area bounded by CO-128/120th Avenue to the north, I-25 to the east, I-70 to the south, and CO-93 to the west, between 1952 and 1992. The text of the survey says its purpose is to identify health issues “that might be related to radiation and/or toxic chemical exposure” and asks respondents to indicate if they have experienced any of a long list of cancers, autoimmune disorders, neurological disorders, hair or skin disorders, reproductive issues, or birth defects.
Rocky Flats Downwinders co-founder Tiffany Hansen grew up in a home that was less than four miles from Rocky Flats, and the 42-year-old says that childhood friends have experienced cancer, autoimmune disorders, and other illnesses. (Hansen herself says she had an ovarian tumor two years ago.) After Hansen started to learn about Rocky Flats—largely through Iversen’s book—she realized there was a lack of research into community health effects. “People who grew up out there are suffering,” she says. “I spearheaded the health survey because that seemed like the missing piece.”
Hansen hopes the survey will lead to a comprehensive medical monitoring program and the possibility of financial compensation for affected people. (She also says that the years covered and geographical scope of the survey might eventually be extended.) Researchers expect to begin to analyze the results of the survey starting around August.