Definitive answers are hard to come by regarding the health of residents close to Rocky Flats despite the vast amounts of data collected on the matter.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has updated studies of cancer rates near the former nuclear weapons plant, explaining the risk as minimal. However, an MSU Denver-led health survey piqued interest with its findings despite using a statistical structure that wasn’t solid enough for the results to be considered valid by CDPHE.
CDPHE used data from the Colorado Central Cancer registry in 1998 to study cancer rates in residents from 1980-1989. In 2016, they updated the findings, adding data from 1990-2014. CDPHE also released an addendum in Sept. 2017 that studied the incidence of thyroid and other cancers that are considered rare, due to public requests for more information.
None of the findings cited evidence that any forms of cancer are elevated in the area, although these studies do have their shortcomings.
“It’s definitely going to miss some cases of cancer,” said Mike VanDyke, PhD, CIH, and branch chief of CDPHE. The cancer studies used residents’ addresses at the time of their cancer diagnosis. These studies missed cases of people that have lived around Rocky Flats, but are diagnosed after moving outside of the studied area, which includes Golden, Arvada, Wheat Ridge, Adams County and Boulder. It also catches diagnoses of people that have not lived in the area and have been diagnosed with cancer upon moving in the area of the former nuclear plant. The first two studies were also limited to ten forms of cancer, because they have the most plausible link to plutonium exposure.
“There’s ways to do it. It just takes a lot of resources to follow up on those cases,” VanDyke said.
The only way to capture all possible cancer connections would be by tracking down residents that moved away from the downwind area of Rocky Flats, and excluding newer residents in the area, whose cancer isn’t connected.
The addendum released in September included a review of thyroid and rare cancers. This study, which also used the Colorado Central Cancer Registry, found no elevated rates of thyroid or rare cancers that had a connection to the immediate environment.
Exposure to plutonium in the environment is the risk carried by living near Rocky Flats, but the risk depends on the amount of exposure. Plutonium was first released into the environment from the 903 Pad of the facility. Barrels stored on the pad leaked, contaminating the area with plutonium.
Windstorms in the late 1960s distributed plutonium both on-site and off.
“The site was built in exactly the wrong location, in terms of the wind dispersing materials in the direction of populated areas,” said Michael Ketterer, chemistry professor at MSU Denver.
Ketterer has independently conducted an off-site soil sampling east off the Indiana Street side of Rocky Flats. Most of the numbers align with what the CDPHE has studied. The highest concentrations of plutonium are usually parallel of where the center of the facility is, between Highways 72 and 128, due to the location of the 903 Pad and the wind’s distribution.
“The real question is, is the plutonium uniformly dispersed in all of the soil particles, or alternatively, is it concentrated in little nuggets,” Ketterer said. The dispersed plutonium usually rests in the upper few inches of ground.
These questions come as Colorado’s population grows and home development continues in the area around Rocky Flats. CDPHE officials insist this isn’t a concern.
“Any construction of highway, or building – if you do any digging at all in that upper inch or two, it’s immediately diluted,” said Carl Spreng, the state project manager for CDPHE. The soil near the 903 Pad had the most elevated samples, but it was dug up and shipped out of state. A concrete cap was poured on other areas to prevent wind dispersion.
Surface and groundwater sites around Rocky Flats were monitored for decades, but the amount of monitored sites is tapering down due to the low risk of plutonium. When CPDHE first began monitoring them, they had hundreds of different sites to monitor. Spreng says that the amount is somewhere in the tens now. The thresholds of plutonium detection at Rocky Flats is much more sensitive in detecting contaminants than they are at other cleanup sites Spreng said.
For Spreng and CDPHE, the problem lies with public perception. Rocky Flats is just one of many areas the department monitors to protect public safety. Contaminants from dry cleaners can pose a greater risk at times.
“Trying to convey that message has proven to be difficult,” Spreng said. “The public perception is, because it’s radionuclides, that it’s more ominous. More dangerous.”
In between samples, numbers and data, Stephanie Malin, an associate professor at Colorado State University hopes that her qualitative study will shine some light in areas that big picture studies miss.
“People are reporting and being diagnosed with rare diseases or multiple diseases, and they believe they’re tied to exposure to contaminants from the site, especially plutonium,” Malin said.
Malin’s qualitative study is complementary to a new health survey led by former MSU Denver associate professor Bobbie Kite, who is now at University of Denver. The study is also in response from community groups to requests for more information on health effects.
The qualitative component “adds a little richness,” Malin says. Her plan is to conduct in-depth interviews with up to 40 people who resided near Rocky Flats during its operation.
The strength of the community, and determination of people to find answers inspires Malin.
“What’s been really positive is that there’s a group of researchers working on this together and we’re working on little to no budget,” she says. “They want something done on the ground, in these communities, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”