Trisha Pritikin on Normalcy in a Sci-fi Nightmare
In 1943 the Hanford Site was established in Benton County Washington, along a bend of the Columbia River, near Tri-Cities. It hosts many legacies, most famous of which is B Reactor the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. B Reactor would go on to be parent to the plutonium in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki on 9 August 1945. From 1945 to 1949 though, the beginnings of a legacy more local to Hanford began: The Downwinders. You see the plutonium separation process resulted in the release of radioactive isotopes into the air, particularly iodione-131, and those particles drift downwind settling onto the land and into the people. These people are the Downwinders.
At 4pm on January 11th in the basement of Valley Library, OSU students, community members, professors, and I had responded to an invitation: “Live Oral History! Come learn about the consequences of nuclear weapons production by listening to the experiences of lawyer and Downwinder Trisha Pritikin as she is recorded sharing some of her life talking with author Jacob Darwin Hamblin, PI on NSF grant ‘”Reconstructing Nuclear Environments and the Downwinders’ Case.”’
Trisha and Dr. Hamblin sat at the front of the small, already warming room, as he calmly asked her historical questions and she spoke of, among other things her experience being born near Hanford in 1950 and the struggles of living with physical health issues a fellow Downwinder had described to her as being like a sci-fi nightmare. Sitting in a cushy, supportive, flexible chair I stopped taking notes. I was struck by a question I craved to ask and I couldn’t shake it, but I was also too afraid to ask it. I collected one of the cards she passed around with her email on it, and a few days later the question had developed into two, and fearing it might double again, I sent her the email. Fortunately for me she responded:
- Do you think most Americans poisoned at Hanford feel the same about the physical issues being like a sci-fi nightmare?
Answer: I think that there are many degrees of impact from Hanford- those of us most physiologically impacted would include those downwind who were in utero, and children when exposed, and who were radiosensitive. There are a lot of people who were exposed who have not had any significant health impacts, either due to their own genetic constitution, low radio sensitivity, age at the time of exposure, or other factors.
Then, I have interviewed quite a few people significantly health impacted like me and the reason I feel that our health issues are sci-fi like are multiple: 1) the cancers that we are diagnosed with, particularly those recognized as radiogenic under nuclear worker compensation laws, are very aggressive and resistant to treatment (i.e. are usually fatal within a short time after diagnosis), 2) the ailments are usually not found anywhere else within the extended family, 3) the ailments are quite disabling. They seem to crop up from nowhere, often when the exposed person is still young (which is prior to the time most people develop serious health issues).
- I have asthma and allergies that trigger it, and I have a couple of friends with severe OCD and Type 1 diabetes- why do you feel abnormal or weird and I don’t?
I think part of this for me stems from knowing that it is more likely than not that my own issues are caused by Hanford radiation. It’s not just the fact of being sick, it’s the fact of having thyroid cancer and hypoparathyroidism caused by chemical separations of plutonium for nuclear weapons. The whole concept of nuclear weapons as part of the causation plays into this as well.
Let’s say that, as a child, you had lived near a factory that produced a chemical that is now known to cause asthma, and that you now, as an adult, have severe asthma. You now have a likely cause for the asthma, although it cannot ever be proven without biomarkers, physiological indicators, that the exposure caused your asthma. It would probably make you angry at the chemical company, but it wouldn’t feel sci-fi like, as this was a run of the mill product, not a bizarre plutonium production facility, that caused your injuries.
As to the dyslexia, myopia, OCD, and type 1 diabetes- I agree that there are many people with all of these issues, and they are more or less “normal” in society.
So, as to my feeling that my medical issues are sci-fi like, I think that it is because they are so severe (the problems) in combination with the probable cause of the problems makes them feel so strange. Also, for those of us exposed as children, having had these exposures at a young age, we just don’t know what will happen next due to genetic damage, makes one feel a bit like a walking time bomb.
That January evening I realized that I kind of think of everyone as sick somehow, medicated or not. In my mind even things like prescription glasses or training to overcome mild dyslexia were essentially medications for something. I realize now thinking about it, that I still feel normal, but it can’t be true that everyone is medicated for something, those of us who are make up a minority. Yet for those of whose sickness is disguised by medicine and practice our lives are usually comparable to the idea of normal.
Thanks to Trisha for answering my question. Trisha and others are currently working on an archival project, amongst others, called CORE (Consequences Of Radiation Exposure) that can be found at corehanford.org.