Tuesday, January 13, 2009

DIS EASE or I'm Radioactive...

I grew up in the direct shadow of Nukes. As a kid, I lived in a lot of places in the world where nuclear research and testing took place, all because of my dad's still-mysterious job.

One nuclear facility's effect on the local population that is especially well documented is the Hanford Project which directly adjoined Richland, part of the Tri-Cities area of Washington State.

From 1961-63, as an 8/9 year old, my dad worked at Hanford, and we lived in Richland. Summers were spent swimming daily in the Columbia River, just barely downstream from Hanford. Hanford was in the business of producing weapons grade plutonium, and was at its peak production between 1956 and 1963. U.S. Government documents have since confirmed that during that period, Hanford released significant amounts of radioactive materials into the air and the Columbia River, causing distress and dis-ease in the residents and ecosystem of the area.

One clear memory I have is of seeing all the little white boxes sitting on most front porches as my bus went to school and back. The boxes were for the Government to collect urine sample from the Hanford workers, in order to measure their exposure.

I also vividly remember the terrible sadness all the kids in our grade school felt when two different boys lost their fathers to cancer, and the tight fear that gripped my stomach when my mother found a lump in her breast that same year. Breast cancer eventually killed my mother, but not for another 37 years. Dad fished and hunted (pheasant and quail, primarily) all the time in the area of Hanford, and we ate everything he brought home with great appreciation.

So I swam in radioactive material, drank radioactive water, and ate the "irradiated" wildlife of the area. Over the years, my immune system began to show multiple signs of malfunction, and by the end of 1999, I finally discovered a very specific ailment linked to my days of Radio-Active living; a thyroid gland that was slowly shutting down.

My sister read in the newspaper that thyroid disorders are predicted to be the single largest ailment of my generation...the cause? Above-ground nuclear testing. Yep, I'm radioactive...

Life-threatening at it's worst, though fairly easily controlled through a daily dose of the hormone produced by the thyroid (the synthetic form isn't NEARLY as effective for me as the natural dessicated variety, btw), our thyroid glands are treacherous components in our wonderfully complex systems. Without the proper level of thyroid hormone in my system my hair became dry and broke off, my skin suddenly (as in, almost overnight) wrinkled and made me look older, and a general sense of malaise overtook my life. I didn't sleep well, had what I thought were hot flashes, and simply didn't want to get out of bed. When my thyroid levels were brought back up to a healthy level, the wrinkles went away, my hair regained it softness, and life looked good again.

My dad took his radioactive lifestyle a step further, accepting work in the places where more testing was taking place, but this time without my mother and me. His final stop on the Atomic Express was the tiny island of Eniwetok (aka Enewetak) way out in the South Pacific, in 1966-69. His job there, I found out MANY years later, was to help in the retrieval of all the materials left from the Atomic tests held there in the 40s/50s, and the ongoing missiles being launched and dropped into the lagoon of the island...formed a decade before by hydrogen blasts. Yeah...

Dad absolutely loved the islands, and raved about the fantastic fishing and day trips to Japtan and Bikini, where the skeltons of ships and remnants of the war were everywhere. He used to bring interesting objects home from Eniwetok for me to see...I still have some of them. One sits just inside my front door, upstairs from where I type this. It's a very odd piece of melted metal. About twelve inches long by six inches across, it looks like a human embryo, which is precisely why dad picked it up. I remember mom asking him, "Ken, is this stuff safe for us to touch?" And of course he insisted it was fine (meaning radiation-free), but knowing him as I do, he probably never tested it or gave it another thought.

See, it's my firm belief that my dad lived as long as he did because of the radiation. My theory is that long-term, low doses of radiation will either kill you or kill any dangerous entity in your system. So you either die from the radiation, or you live a very long time.

My father lived to be fairly ancient (96), without a single disease ever taking hold in him that anyone ever discovered. I say that last because I now understand that his dementia and increased skin and hair problems, along with a number of other symptoms were very likely due to a thyroid gland that slowly declined, and finally shut down. You see, thyroid hormone influences the rate at which cellular factories all over the body turn out proteins, including the brain. Decrease the hormonal signal that make critical proteins in the brain, and we don’t think so well. Repress the signal long enough, dementia and ultimately death is the result.

Yep. It seems that dad was radioactive, too. Guess I wasn't hallucinating all those times that I thought I noticed us glowing in the dark.

1 comment:

~*~Patty Szymkowicz said...

My husband and I read this post with interest (at first I was going to say "enjoyed" reading?) That is quite a story! TFS!