Research on Adverse Health Effects from Rocky Flats on Local Residents: A Summary

In Jefferson Parkway, Nuclear Guardianship, Plutonium, Rocky Flats, Wildlife Refuge on March 10, 2013 at 4:45 am

Facing plans to build the Jefferson Parkway along the most contaminated edge of the Rocky Flats site and the intent of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to allow public access to much of the still contaminated Rocky Flats site, we need a good summary of studies of health affects from Rocky Flats on people who live or work near the site. The following is my attempt to meet this need.  Of course I welcome comments or questions.

Carl Johnson’s cancer incidence study: In a 1981 study Carl Johnson divided the Denver region into three areas of higher to lower contamination of soil with plutonium released from Rocky Flats and a fourth non-contaminated area. Using data from the National Cancer Institute for 1969-1971, he demonstrated a relation between areas of contamination and cancer incidence in those same areas. The most contaminated area nearest Rocky Flats had 16% more cancer than the non-contaminated area, the intermediate area 10% more cancers, and the contaminated area furthest from Rocky Flats 6% more cancers. (Johnson, “Cancer Incidence in an Area Contaminated with Radionuclides Near a Nuclear Installation,” Ambio, 1981, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 176-182)

Feasibility study: In 1982 Nancy A. Dreyer and co-workers reported a feasibility study for an epidemiologic study of persons who lived near the plant. They assumed exposure to plutonium began in 1967 and concluded that, based on the environmental data they analyzed, exposures were not high enough to be evaluated with statistical analyses in an epidemiologic study. (Dreyer et al., “The Feasibility of Epidemiologic Studies of Cancer in Residents Near the Rocky Flats Plant,” Health Physics, 1982 vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 65-68)

John Cobb’s autopsy study: In a study that began in 1975 C. U. Medical School professor John C. Cobb and colleagues from EPA measured plutonium concentrations in autopsy samples from more than 500 persons who died in Colorado. They compared those who lived near Rocky Flats with those who lived far from the site and found higher concentrations of plutonium in lung and liver tissue for people who lived near the plant. (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]

Crump’s response to Johnson: In 1987 a DOE-funded study by Kenneth S. Crump et al. responded to Carl Johnson’s cancer incidence study. Using the same data and methodology that he used, they replicated his results, but said they found no evidence of “a relation between environmental exposure to plutonium from Rocky Flats and cancer incidence.” They advanced the thesis that cancer rates were highest in inner city Denver due to the “urban effect” rather than proximity to Rocky Flats. To reach this conclusion they abandoned Johnson’s approach and divided the metro area into six equal-sized sectors centered on the State Capitol, then calculated the cancer incidence in each sector. They found that cancer rates in the sector containing Rocky Flats were no higher than other sectors. (Crump et al., “Cancer Incidence Patterns in the Denver Metropolitan Area in Relation to the Rocky Flats Plant,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 1987, vol. 126, no.1, pp. 127-135)[2]

National Cancer Institute study: In 1990, researchers at the National Cancer Institute completed a study of cancer incidence and mortality around 62 nuclear facilities in the U.S. This study compared cancer rates in counties near nuclear facilities, including Rocky Flats, with those for counties farther away. The results show slight elevations for some cancers in some age groups, but these data are hard to interpret because of limited information about other cancer-related factors. For example, Rocky Flats is on the northern edge of Jefferson County, which then had the second highest population of all Colorado counties, only a small portion of which were living where they could be exposed to toxins released from Rocky Flats. (S. Jablon et al., Cancer in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities, NIH Publication No. 90-874. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990)

Community Needs Assessment: In 1996 nurses at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center conducted a community needs assessment and concluded that community-based epidemiological studies should occur in areas affected by Rocky Flats. (N. J. Brown et al., Rocky Flats community needs assessment final report, Denver: UCHSC School of Nursing, 1996)

Epidemiologist Richard W. Clapp calls for ongoing medical surveillance: In 1996 Boston University epidemiologist, Richard W. Clapp, found excessive incidence of lung and bone cancers in areas near Rocky Flats and concluded that “the most recent data are indicative of an ongoing health effect and support the need for surveillance of the incidence of cancer and other diseases on a continuing basis in the exposed communities.” (Clapp, Report submitted 13 November 1996 for plaintiff’s counsel in Cook vs. Dow Chemical and Rockwell International, United States District Court, District of Colorado)

Colorado Central Cancer Registry report: In 1998, the Colorado Central Cancer Registry staff at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that cancer incidence rates for 10 selected regional statistical areas in the general vicinity of the Rocky Flats Plant from 1980-1989 were comparable to those for the rest of the Denver metropolitan area for the same period. (Colorado Central Cancer Registry, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Ratios of Cancer Incidence in Ten Areas Around Rocky Flats, Colorado, compared to the Remainder of Metropolitan Denver, 1980-1989, with Update for Selected Areas, 1990-95)

Historical Public Exposures Studies on Rocky Flats (1990-1999): Otherwise referred to as dose reconstruction studies, the purpose was to identify quantities of contaminants released off-site and the potential health risks posed by these contaminants to nearby communities. The studies attempted to determine if exposures and risks were sufficiently high to be observed in increased cancer rates in the surrounding population. Due to the low levels of exposure, population changes and the fact that no disease can be attributed solely to plutonium, it would be difficult to perform an epidemiologic study. The principal conclusion therefore was that no epidemiological study was warranted. (H. Grogan et al., Technical Summary: Phase II, Rocky Flats Historical Public Exposures Studies, Radiological Assessments Corporation Report No. 14-CDPHE-RF-1999-FINAL, Neeses, South Carolina: Radiological Assessments Corporation, 1999)[3]

[1] In his interview for the Rocky Flats Oral History project (Maria Rogers Oral History Program, OH1180V), Cobb spoke of plans for his group to expand their autopsy study to determine whether plutonium was present in reproductive organs where via sperm it could adversely affect the health of future generations. The study was halted soon after Reagan took office in 1981 before the reproductive organ research could be completed.

[2] Johnson, in a published response, pointed out that Crump et al. were able to claim less cancer for areas near Rocky Flats only because the sector containing Rocky Flats also included the sizeable unexposed upwind city of Boulder (1970 population 66,870). They thus greatly undercounted cancer incidence related to Rocky Flats. (Johnson, “Cancer incidence patterns in the Denver Metropolitan Area in relation to the Rocky Flats Plant,” American Journal of Epidemiology, 1987, vol. 126, no. 1, p. 153)

[3] An epidemiological study is a statistical analysis of data (such as that done by Carl Johnson and Richard Clapp); it may point to the need for actual medical examination of people from an affected population but it does not involve such. The Historical Public Exposures Studies are sometimes called “health studies,” but no one’s health was studied. There has never been any direct health study or medical monitoring of people who live in areas contaminated with plutonium released from Rocky Flats.

  1. Reblogged this on kjmhoffman.

    • Contact the Rocky Flats Downwinders and share your information with them. If you drop me a note at I’ll send you contact information for them.
      LeRoy Moore

  2. Thanks for the summary. As a nearby resident, it is good to know this information, although a careful examination of this summary tells me that any link is really inconclusive based on the existing studies. With some pointing toward no increased cancer incidence, it seems the risks to the public are largely overblown, especially in relation to their risks from other carcinogens.
    As a recent transplant here, I’d really be curious to any long-term health implications from any remaining pollution. Are you aware of actual studies with that as the focus? I understand that there is still plutonium in the soil, etc., but at what levels is it more dangerous than a sunburn? Seems to me that radon in my basement is a higher risk factor than remaining plutonium from the plant. At least that I can control.
    Thanks again

    • Hello Bryce:

      Thanks for this comment. The studies cited above give an inconclusive result because of the division between those that support the position of the nuclear establishment and those who disagree with this position. Government agencies in general support the nuclear establishment; otherwise the industry could not continue operating. For further detail on the various studies done in relation to Rocky Flats, go on line to http://www.rockyflatsnuclearguardianship.org and open LeRoy Moore papers and select “Democracy and Public Health at Rocky Flats.” This article contains a discussion of whether it’s safe to live near Rocky Flats in the section dealing with the work of Carl Johnson. I think this should help answer some of your questions.

      Good wishes, LeRoy Moore

  3. New finding….. What about the people who have Epilepsy? This is a small cluster of people who lived in the bounderies of Rocky Flats. Come to find out we all lived in the neighborhoods of Countryside/ Moutain Gate.

    What about these people??? This problem is not going away. Lets not dance around. Rocky Flats messed up. Help us out.

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