Environmental Story of the Year: Sharon Lerner reporting on a Florida Cancer Cluster

For the final edition of this blog in 2014, I looked back through my files for a report to recommend as environmental story of the year. One that has stuck with me since November is a report in The Nation by Sharon Lerner. It is superb not only for the quality and thoroughness of the research but also because the story relates everything that is wrong with countries that have chosen to put energy security and national security above the protection of life.
In this story about the cancer cluster in Acreage, Florida, the tragic irony in the pursuit of security is starkly revealed in the experience of a father who worked as a customs agent. Because his job required him to keep his nation safe from the bad guys who would smuggle in nuclear materials and perhaps dump them in water supplies, he wore a Geiger counter on his belt, and it was this device that detected the high radiation levels in the water around his residence in Acreage. His teenage daughter had survived brain cancer surgery recently, and was still struggling with the after-effects. Several other children living nearby had been similarly afflicted, some of them with fatal outcomes. Their families had been getting some support from local, state and federal government, but still the cause of the mysterious cancer cluster was difficult to pin down. Was it a random coincidence? Chemicals? A unique lifestyle shared by the victims? Radiation? The staccato sound of that Geiger counter in the middle of the night was the sign pointing to the most likely cause—a defense contractor that will always be able to evade responsibility because of the important work it does in protecting the nation from evildoers.

For years, radioactive waste has seeped into swampland, canals—even drinking water in Acreage, Florida. Now a few families are fighting to hold the polluters accountable.

Just because I chose an American story doesn’t mean that this is only an American story. My point is that this is a textbook case of what occurs in contaminated communities everywhere in the world. If anything, this American story might be the most hopeful simply because it is known and reported, and government agencies and the justice system sometimes did at least function to some degree to assist the victims, even though there is likely to be no satisfying outcome.
It would be more compelling perhaps if each story of contaminated communities could be as unique as a new work of avant-garde narrative, but, unfortunately, they are as formulaic as the standard three-act Hollywood romantic comedy. So this is how I’ve summarized the report on Acreage. You can get the general outline here, but it would be better to take the time to read the long version at the link above.

Act 1: First Reactions

The story began with the individual families dealing in isolation with the rare diseases that afflicted their children. At first they accepted what had happened as blameless, rare tragedies, but then they started to hear about other cases nearby and they became suspicious of an environmental cause. There were four children with brain tumors who lived within two miles of each other, and several pets had died as well. Because the town was unincorporated and had no responsibility to supply treated water, the well water which everyone drank was a likely place to look for pollutants.

Act 2: The Conflict

The affected townspeople turned their suspicions into a concerted fight to find out what had sickened their children. In the past, government agencies had obviously failed to act on knowledge that the area had problems that should have closed it off to residential development, but in the present case there were people in government agencies who did what they are supposed to do when citizens come with concerns. The state undertook a cancer cluster investigation, which, like 99% of all such investigations, everyone expected to conclude with a finding that the cancers were random occurrences. This is because random events are never evenly distributed. If you throw confetti in a room, you won’t find that each square meter of the floor has an equal number of confetti. Some will have very few, and others will have a lot. Thus it was a shock to the community when the Center for Disease Control found that the situation in Acreage was indeed statistically significant.
All levels of government got involved and helped the victims find out what pollutants had caused the problem, but they turned out to be less interested in finding entities to blame. They found several contaminants in local wells that were above legal limits and the townspeople got the message. Don’t drink the water. However, after these results were found, a new phase of the struggle was becoming apparent. The government agencies were prepared to close the investigation by publishing understated generalities like “water is safe for families to enjoy outdoor activities in their yards.”
At this point the families realized that the government agencies had little interest in pursuing justice for past suffering, or doing anything that would deter future crimes. The more they spoke up and demanded that polluters be identified and punished, the more the unaffected residents fought back. Most people were not affected by health problems, and they were more concerned about maintaining property values, business investment and jobs.
The families that continued to seek answers were accused of gold digging—cynically using their children’s tragic deaths to get money from big corporations. They were subjected to verbal abuse, physical threats, vandalism, and online bullying.

Act 3: Small victories, big defeats

Some of the affected families persisted in going forward in civil trials, while others declined. There are 13 personal injury suits and two class action lawsuits over damages to property values—declines which co-occurred, unfortunately for the plaintiffs, with the nation-wide crash in property values in 2007-08.
There have been famous precedents in environmental justice cases which involved private lawsuits and legal actions by government agencies. The cases in Woburn, Mass. and Toms River, NJ are two mentioned in the article because they serve as examples where much was spent for little gain. They actually serve as deterrents now for lawyers working on contingency and government agencies that might consider going after environmental crimes. Furthermore, some corporations, just like some individuals, are easier to target than others. In the late 1990s, several American states were ready to make the tobacco industry pay hundreds of billions for health care costs, but when the defendants are defense contractors working on secret projects for the government itself, government agencies aren’t likely to be interesting in prosecution.
Meanwhile, much was done to deflect attention to other possible causes: old dump sites, pesticides and herbicides, or even the smoke from sugar cane fires. Yet the brain cancer cluster in children was a unique kind of cancer cluster that deserved to have special attention, and one question worth pursuing arose from the fact that radiation is a known cause of brain cancer. That was where the custom officer’s Geiger counter entered the story.
One suspect was a limestone mine that was known to have released a lot of radon out of the soil, but the more likely culprit that emerged was Pratt and Whitney, a defense contractor that had been in the area for decades. The company was able to conceal information under the cloak of national security, and the courts had no power to make them hand it over. However, records were found of radionuclide use in Pratt and Whitney facilities—in particular, radionuclides that don’t occur naturally. But Pratt and Whitney said these were Chernobyl fallout.* The company had also released various chemicals into the environment: jet fuel, trichloroethylene, PCBs… And there was a study that showed the death rate by cancer of company workers went from 13 to 122 per 100,000 between 1967 and 1980.
There was a point in the early 1980s when the EPA wanted to declare the Acreage area a Superfund site, but Pratt and Whitney won that battle and government agencies began to forget about the issue. Today, the company sponsors cancer charities and engages in other greenwashing activities, and there has been a revolving door for high-level officials to move between regulatory agencies and corporations. It seems like none of the government agencies ever made the effort to at least have the state zone the worst areas as “nature preserves”—an increasingly common euphemistic label employed in recent years to let polluters save face (and $$) while the public is kept from living on land they don’t know is contaminated. Like the wildlife that has to live there, the humans don’t need to know, apparently.
The legal battles continue, but many opted to take their losses on loved ones, property and careers and just move far away. Many who stayed feel just like residents of Fukushima. They may not claim to have suffered any physical harm from the pollution, but the revelations about their contaminated environment have left them traumatized and fearful about what the future holds in store.

What does this say about us?

The story of Acreage wouldn’t be so worrisome if it were just a one-time tragedy, but it is really just a typical entry in a long list of such cases. Almost very element of this story can be found in any story of contaminated communities. In my short lifetime I’ve been chilled to see the growing indifference to the phrase “national sacrifice zone.” It’s like we just shrug it off and add one more to the list, as if there were an infinite supply of new places to inhabit.
When Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico in 1521, one of the rationalizations for the takeover was that the Aztecs were barbarians who sacrificed innocent children to their heathen gods. At least they had an excuse. They hadn’t developed a rational scientific method to teach them that the sacrifices were unnecessary. Ironically, we have had our scientific method for 500 years, but it has been warped into a faith called scientism which serves the ends of military and corporate expansion. An entrenched priesthood of scientists and economists tells us that children with glioblastoma brain tumors are just a part of our way of life that we must accept. A sacrifice for all the great benefits bestowed upon us.

* A question for those online activists who have found radiation hot spots in Florida that they claim to be Fukushima fallout: Have you ruled out all possible local sources?


A Shock Doctrine for Nuclear Energy: Radiation as Electroshock

It has been almost four years since the rapid, unplanned decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi NPP occurred in March 2011, yet it remains difficult to make people appreciate the scale of the dangers involved in a nuclear reactor core meltdown. It just makes no intuitive sense that a few buildings smaller than a Costco store could be so dangerous to so many life forms near and far from the site of what the media like to call the “accident” at the “crippled” power plant. For most people, Fuku-1 is just a ruined industrial site on a few hectares of land in a rural seaside community. The accident is over, clean it up, scrape the cores into a trash bin and be done with it. That seems to be as much as the public wants to think about it. Again, intuitive knowledge would say that a few tons of melted metal are an unsightly mess, but not something that people in Tokyo need to worry about.
Decay scheme for the isotope Iodine 131. keV=electron volt.
Iodine 131 decays to Xenon 131, releasing 971 keV in the process.
It is very difficult to make people appreciate just how deadly these melted cores are, and of course there are many vested interests that don’t want the public think about it much. It’s been convenient to not make people dwell on the problem.
Nonetheless, the destroyed, not crippled, plant is a long way from being cleaned up. As one headline put it in an understatement this week, the “most difficult work” lies ahead. Indeed. The fact is, no living thing can get close to the melted cores because the radiation levels are high enough to cause instant death. Even the robots get fried when they go in to take a few video clips. The containment structures are ruptured, so there is no way to approach the cores and begin dismantling the ruined reactors. Even if there were a way to do it, the work of drilling and chipping at the melted and solidified fuel would send radioactive dust back into the environment. The safest thing to do may be to just abandon the site and leave it as a lasting testament to our civilization.
But who really has the capacity to think about this? Most people have other things to worry about, or they just won’t take an interest in learning a bit of nuclear physics or contemplating the jam the human race has got itself into. The human brain has not evolved to avoid dangers like radiation, so the subject is beyond the reach of intuitive psychology. Even before there were scientifically literate people, it was natural to expect a thrown object to travel in an arc. But no one expects to get sick and die within hours in the presence of certain rocks. Radiation might as well be in the realm of the uncanny and supernatural. It is voodoo action at a distance, a long-term magic spell that can make a person drop dead one year or ten years into the future. Paradoxically, it connects the rationalism of the scientific era back with the superstitious beliefs of the past.
So it is not easy to convey to the majority of people why they should worry about having nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants in their communities. They seem to be ordinary objects, and radiation is intangible. However, I will take a shot at formulating a simple lesson with a point that I haven’t seen anyone else make.
My explanation hinges on the words electra and volt which are used to talk about nuclear energy at both the macro and micro level. We all like to have electrons at our command, traveling through wires in our homes so we can stay warm or cool, fed and entertained. Everyone has to learn the voltage of the local current. At the macro level, uranium and plutonium fission and produce heat, which produces steam that turns a turbine to make electricity. Curiously, at the micro level, the energy of fission and radioactive decay is also described as electricity, measured as electron volts. Different isotopes have different numbers of electron volts that they emit with each decay, making some of them more dangerous than others.
To understand just how unusual and uncanny nuclear reactor fuel is, it is enough to simply marvel at how much heat one reactor can produce. Just one of the reactors at Fuku 1 produced enough heat to light up and heat up a suburb of Tokyo. All that potential energy inside one of those little boxes smaller than a Costco store! And after the meltdown and unplanned disconnection from the grid, there was no way to completely turn off the process of heat creation.
When a reactor core melts down and its energy is released into the environment, where does that energy go? Eventually it finds its way into living things, into people, and it continues to produce its electricity there just as it did in the reactor. It is mankind’s caged beast now on the loose and out of control.
Thus we can think of radiation as a slow motion, microscopic, internal electrocution. Radioactive atoms spread through the environment, and their alpha and beta radiation strikes cells, disfigures proteins and damages DNA. The cells and DNA can usually repair themselves, but if they can’t, cells can die and the organism can just carry on weaker that before and aging faster than it would have. Sometimes the cell doesn’t die and it reproduces as a cancerous mutation. There is nothing original in this description. The process is well known, but maybe it is useful and novel to describe the process as death in the slow cooker, a low-grade microscopic electrocution. It is electricity escaped from wires and grids and sent through the environment into your body. The less you get, the better.