leroymoore

Rocky Flats plutonium in the gonads? Samples collected but never analyzed

In Environment, Nuclear Policy, Plutonium, Public Health, Rocky Flats, Uncategorized on August 22, 2014 at 12:16 am

Very soon after I learned about Rocky Flats in 1979, I attended a seminar on radiation health effects offered by John (Jock) Cobb, MD, of the faculty of the CU Medical School. It was an eye opener. He was a remarkable teacher who brought clarity to complex subjects. And, as the following account makes clear, he was also a very original researcher regarding present and long-term health effects of exposure to plutonium released from Rocky Flats. He first learned details about Rocky Flats in 1974-75 when he was named by newly-elected Governor Dick Lamm and Congressman Tim Wirth to the Lamm-Wirth Task Force, a public group that studied all aspects of the Rocky Flats plant and issued a very influential report that said the plant should never have been built near a major population center and should be shut down and its operations moved elsewhere.

When I first met Jock Cobb he was deeply immersed in an unusual study in which his team of researchers collected samples of tissue from Colorado people who had died and been autopsied. His wanted to see how much Rocky Flats plutonium had been deposited in the bodies of these deceased people. It’s difficult to imagine this happening now, but in the 1970s EPA actually invited him to do this a study that they would fund. This meant of course that the DOE could not control the study. Cobb was doing a study that would show definitively that people who lived downwind of Rocky Flats had taken various quantities of plutonium into their bodies, mainly by inhalation, the worst way to be exposed to plutonium. It is well known that internalized plutonium deposits in the tissue of lung, liver and bone where it will continue to irradiate surrounding tissue typically for the rest of one’s life. So Cobb was studying lung, liver and bone tissues. But he also wanted to study the presence of plutonium in the tissue of the gonads, for plutonium in the gonads would have a genetic effect that could be passed on to future generations. Such a study was far more complicated than analysis of lung, liver and bone. Moreover, it had never been done by anyone, and Cobb wanted to do it.

This is where he came up against political reality. At just the time he was doing this study the EPA, a federal agency, underwent a major transformation. In its early years it was truly an environmental protection agency. But When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 one of his goals was to abolish the EPA. He did not succeed in doing this, but Ann Gorsuch, whom he named head of the EPA, terminated the funding for Cobb’s study of plutonium in body tissue. Thus the crucial study of Rocky Flats plutonium in the gonads was never done. For more details of this little-known story, read the following.

I am in the process of providing a closely documented history of the Rocky Flats plant and public issues. It will be posted on the Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship web site: http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org. The text about Cobb below will be included in this endeavor.

EPA asks John (Jock) Cobb, MD, of the University of Colorado Medical School faculty to do a study of Rocky Flats plutonium in bodies of deceased people who were autopsied: The EPA-sponsored study began in 1975. Cobb’s team of researchers measured plutonium concentrations in samples collected from more than 500 persons who died and were autopsied in Colorado hospitals, 8 or 10 Denver-area hospitals, one in Pueblo. The researchers routinely sought permission from the closest of kin to take the samples. The study compared those who lived near Rocky Flats with those who lived far from the site. The bodies of all these people contained plutonium from bomb fallout, but those who lived nearer the plant had identifiably Rocky Flats plutonium in tissues of lung, liver and bone, with concentrations higher the closer the person lived to the plant. Cobb periodically shared study results with DOE and Rockwell officials. They found the results embarrassing, but they couldn’t stop the study because it was funded by the EPA. So they tried to get rid of Cobb, even sought to get him dismissed from the university. This failed because he had tenure.[1]

The study was well underway when Reagan became president in January 1981. Anyone old enough to recall will remember that his administration tried to destroy the EPA. Ann Gorsuch (later known as Ann Buford, due to marriage), was named head of the EPA by Reagan She terminated the funding for Cobb’s study, so it ended before it was completed. Cobb insisted that the data already gathered be made publicly available, but people at EPA resisted. When Cobb persisted, EPA personnel rewrote the report’s conclusion to say that Rocky Flats harmed no one. In response Cobb appealed to members of Congress to get the report’s original language restored. Finally, the report, more or less in its original language, was made available by the National Technical Information Service.[2] You could get a copy only if you contacted them and paid a fee. Very few people ever saw the report or knew of its existence. Rumors were that Cobb had found nothing worth reporting. But as it finally appeared the report stated clearly that plutonium from Rocky Flats was present in lungs and liver of people who lived near the plant. Results of the study, if not widely available, at least were formally recorded. The report can be read at the Norlin Library of the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Cobb’s original plan was to study plutonium in the gonads, with an eye on the effect on future generations, but it did not happen: In Cobb’s view the most important part of the study was not done. His research team had collected tissue from lung, liver and bone, but also from the gonads. In his Rocky Flats Oral History interview, he said, “It was my hypothesis that the plutonium was being deposited in the gonads, right where it would be affecting the sperm and causing mutations in the sperm, which would then show up . . . in future generations as . . . childhood cancers, deformities, and all that sort of thing.” He agreed to do the study EPA requested only when they agreed to let him analyze tissue from the gonads in addition to lung, liver and bone. He was familiar with studies of plutonium in gonads of rats. These studies showed that plutonium was “deposited in the basement membrane” of the gonads “right near where the sperm were being generated. . . . This would be the worst place to have plutonium in your body, and if it was there in significant amounts that would be not only endangering the present but all future generations, because it would be damaging the genes.”

The research Cobb was most eager to do had never been done with humans, and, so far as I know, has not yet been done “It takes a whole lot more finesse,” he said, “to find the amount of plutonium in the gonad, which weighs only 5 or 6 grams, maybe, than it does in a lung, which is maybe a thousand grams.” So the samples from the gonads “were left for last.” One of his colleagues in the study was a man named Wes Efurd, who undertook the task of developing a method for measuring the very tiny amounts of plutonium deposited in the gonads. His success in doing this was a major breakthrough for studying the gonads, but it happened just as funding for the study ended. Thus Cobb and Efurd never got to take advantage of Efurd’s innovation. With the end of the study, all the gonads samples, which remained unexamined, were “sent to Los Alamos by the EPA.”

There the gonads samples sat in a freezer for 20 years. When Shawki Ibrahim of Colorado State University’s nuclear research program learned about the samples, he asked Los Alamos to send them to CSU. He designed a study that would have government support. Cobb had intended to find out how much plutonium was in the gonads of individuals and to show on a map where each person lived and how much plutonium was present in that person’s gonads. This information would show where genetic problems might appear in later generations, a type of research that, as pointed out earlier, had not previously been done anywhere. Ibrahim’s plan, by contrast, “would have negated” what Cobb had hoped to find out. According to Cobb, Ibrahim “was going to take all the gonads [samples] and put them into one big pot and analyze the whole thing and then get a figure from that of how much [plutonium] was in each gonad on average.” Ibrahim sought Cobb’s blessing for this approach, but Cobb didn’t give it, because only separate analysis of individual samples would provide the important results he wanted. Ibrahim’s approach would totally destroy the very possibility of learning about the presence of plutonium in the gonads of specific persons. In August 2014 Ibrahim and I had a couple of email exchanges. I learned from him, first, that the gonads samples were sent from Los Alamos to CSU; second, that he never did a study with them; and third, that, though the samples were kept securely in a freezer at CSU, they were destroyed by a weekend power outage. Thus ended what could have been the first study of plutonium in human gonads anywhere. 

[1] Most of the information in these several paragraphs on Cobb is drawn from the interview with John Cobb, Rocky Flats Oral History project, Maria Rogers Oral History Program, OH1180V.

[2] Cobb et al., “Plutonium Burdens in People Living Around the Rocky Flats Plant,” March 1983, EPA-600/4-82-069, Springfield, VA: National Technical Information Service.

  1. Reblogged this on jkmhoffman.

  2. …Can tests be done on the physical body, to determine if one has plutonium in their body or organs?

    Thanks

    • Hello Judy:

      Your question is posed after you’ve read about Jock Cobb’s study of plutonium present in tissue of people who had died and been autopsied. He was able to go directly to parts of the body — lungs, liver, bone and gonads — to collect tissue that could then be examined to see if it contained plutonium. This kind of study cannot be done on living humans. Workers at Rocky Flats who may have been exposed to plutonium on the job had their urine tested to see if it showed signs of plutonium in the body. If their urine did contain plutonium, this meant they had plutonium in their bodies, but where? For large deposits special equipment could detect the location, but most deposits of plutonium are quite small and cannot be easily located inside the body. One of the realities about plutonium is that very small amounts lodged within the body can prove harmful because the plutonium is constantly irradiating surrounding tissue wherever it is located, and it will do this for as long as it remains in the body, which will probably be for the rest of one’s life.

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