By L.J. Devon
Like reaching vines, radioactive waste particles can find a way to disperse from their decades-old storage, spreading into the environment. Sprawling through the soil, silently underfoot, decades-old radioactive waste can meander its way to the surface. Clinging like thorns, these radioactive particles leech into the ground, into the water, finding their way into humans, making their presence known as babies are born with mysterious birth defects.
An old nuclear site in the state of Washington is becoming more controversial than ever. Counties clustered around the nuclear site in south central Washington, including Benton, Yakima and Franklin, are bringing forth alarming numbers of babies born with mysterious birth defects. Since 2010, 31 cases of anencephaly have been reported, stunning state health officials. In 2013 alone, seven cases were reported. In anencephaly, children fail to develop parts of their brain. The average occurrence across the US is 2.1 cases per 10,000 births. In the area surrounding the Hanford nuclear site, the rate is 8.7 cases per 10,000 births.
Questions go unanswered over mysterious birth defect clusters
Is leaking radioactive waste the cause for the more than 400 percent increase in anencephaly in south central Washington?
This is one of the questions being asked by residents of the area who are now meeting publicly to discuss the very serious matter. Washington health officials are stumped on the matter, believing this cluster to be nothing more than coincidence.
“We would love to find a smoking gun,” said Juliet VanEenwyk, the Washington State epidemiologist who is reviewing the situation. “The bad news is, most cluster investigations don’t find a cause.” Detailed interviews with dozens of women may have to be conducted. “As we move forward, we’ll look for what is useful — and feasible,” she said.
Meanwhile, the alarming trend continues. First recognized in 2012 by a nurse from one of the county’s rural hospitals, anencephaly has shown up now for the 31st time in just a few years. The most newly affected resident, Jocelyn Robles (23), has recently found out that her baby will be born with the rare birth defect known as anencephaly. Gathering with health officials and scientists in her area at the Sunnyside Community Center, Robles is looking for answers, possible causes or missing links for the alarming local spike in birth defects.
These community listening sessions were put together to gather resident’s input to help a state advisory group decide how to advance. Many residents asked whether geography, occupation, pesticides or diet played a role in the spike, including the incidents’ close proximity to the Hanford nuclear plant. After all, birth defects are a known consequence of exposure to radioactive waste, but state health officials have declined that these are possibilities at the moment. New meetings are being set up for mid-June and will continue throughout the summer. The meetings will be headed up by a new advisory panel consisting of 16 Washington State health officials. The meetings will look to rule out potential molds, nitrates in water and other pesticides. Dietary issues during pregnancy will also be discussed, including whether or not the affected women took enough folic acid during pregnancy.
Leaking nuclear waste from Hanford may be instigating the birth defects
The Hanford nuclear site in the desert of southeastern Washington State, was once a vast complex for plutonium production during the World War II and Cold War eras. The 586-square-mile site was decommissioned in 1987, leaving behind 177 underground tanks of byproduct. At least 56 million gallons of liquid and semi-solid nuclear and chemical waste were stored there. The tanks, which require extensive monitoring, are beyond functional ability; scientists estimate that 1 million gallons of radioactive waste have already leaked into the environment.
In 2001, the Department of Energy ordered that the stored nuclear waste be reprocessed and restored through vitrification, a blending process that seals the waste in glass-forming materials at 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Don Dufault (68), whose son was born with anencephaly in 1977, said, “I believe it is an ongoing problem and I believe that the environment might have something to do with it.”
When the community meeting commenced, Don and his wife embraced newly affected mother Jocelyn Robles, as families young and old feel that something is not right in the area.
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