Summary: Sketchy and inaccurate records on iodine-131 releases during the Cold War dont provide much relief for cancer victims

This is a story of the nations Cold War nuclear weapons legacy that experts say raises more questions than it answers. But they are questions Tina Andrews, a former farm girl from American Falls, Idaho, thinks are worth asking on behalf of herself and perhaps thousands of other cancer victims.

Andrews, who lives in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, was diagnosed with follicular carcinoma of the thyroid when she was 19.

Now 40, Andrews is battling immune system-related illnesses doctors tell her are likely associated with having had her thyroid removed back in 1979 to save her life.

"I wouldnt want anyone to go through what Ive gone through over the last 20 years, Andrews said.

What Andrews ate and drank from the time she was born in 1958 until she was 14 indicate that if significant concentrations of radioactive fallout landed on and near her parents farm at the edge of the Wapi Lava Flow about 12 miles west of American Falls, then she fits the profile of what health physicists would call a near maximally exposed individual.

Atmospheric bomb tests in Nevada during the 1950s might have spread more radioactive iodine-131 on Custer, Gem, Lemhi and Blaine counties to the northwest of the Andrews farm than any place in the nation.

Thats according to a 1997 report by the National Cancer Institute that a peer review panel later said contains a lot of uncertainty.

Meanwhile, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers are conducting a multi-year, multimillion-dollar study aimed at determining exactly how much radiation and toxic chemical exposure people received from documented releases -- mostly nuclear weapons related -- that occurred mainly in the 1950s and 1960s at what now is the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Centers for Disease Control health physicist C.M. Wood is working on the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory Dose Reconstruction study. He said the fact that Andrews drank large quantities of fresh milk from goats and cows raised on her familys farm would have given her young thyroid an extra large radiation dose, if the large Nevada bomb test fallout concentrations cited in the National Cancer Institute report actually fell on her farm.

Cows that eat iodine-131 fallout-tainted grass concentrate the radioactive isotope in their milk. Goats concentrate it in their milk at least 10 times more readily than cows.

Andrews said she, her parents and her older brother never ate grocery store produce until she was 14. They grew all their own vegetables and fruits, or bought it from other area farmers. No other members of the family contracted cancer, but disease experts say that infants are far more vulnerable to fallout.

Iodine -131 has a radioactive decay half-life of only eight days. Thats why people who eat produce and drink milk collected within hours or a few days after a fallout episode are likely to receive far more radiation than people who eat food and drink milk bought at grocery stores, Wood said.

Wood calls it certainly plausible that Andrews could have been exposed to significant concentrations of Nevada bomb test fallout if it did land on or near her familys farm.

Its known that the kind of cancer Andrews had can be caused by high doses of radiation. It also can be caused by other environmental and genetic factors. Its more common in women than men, but occurs far less frequently in younger women than older women.

Retired laboratory health physicist John Horan agreed that Andrews history does point to potentially high exposure if high concentrations of fallout occurred where she lived.

One problem with that assumption though, Horan said, is that scientists who critiqued the National Cancer Institutes 1997 Nevada bomb test fallout report found a major uncertainty in its estimates of how much iodine-131 fell where.

Thats because researchers based their dose calculations for Idaho, for example, on the only three iodine-131 monitoring stations operating in the area at the time. One station was in Boise, one in Idaho Falls and one in Missoula, Mont.

And the sticky paper method of iodine-131 sampling used in the 1950s wasnt highly accurate.

The most concentrated bomb test fallout could have occurred right over the Andrews farm, but there is no way to tell, Horan said.

Andrews also wonders whether Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratorys past releases caused her cancer.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the laboratorys largest known releases occurred, Horan was involved in establishing protocols for the least hazardous times to release radiation.

For every intentional laboratory release, wind had to be blowing toward the northeast. Andrews farm was about 40 miles south of the laboratory.

In the hours after a Jan. 3, 1961, explosion at Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratorys SL-1 reactor that killed three operators, an invisible puff of radiation drifted south with the wind and swung just west of American Falls, Horan said.

Even if it traveled ddirectly over the Andrews farm, Horan said calculations by scientists indicate it contained only two to three times greater than normal background radiation when released. And it diffused constantly as it drifted.

"This wasnt high by any sense, Horan said.

"Causation for her cancer you cant come up with. Its unfortunate, but as far as the government coming up with any support for her, I cant see any basis for it.

If the government is at fault, Andrews wants it to at least pay medical bills related to her past cancer that are more than $40,000.

Richard Schultz, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Health administrator, agreed with Horan that with a limited amount of information on past radiation doses from federal nuclear sites, thats not possible, at least for now.

Hundreds of other people around the nation have made similar allegations and called for similar compensation during the past few decades.

Some bomb test downwinders in Nevada and southern Utah were compensated by the government in the 1970s for health problems attributed to fallout from those tests.

After reports this year of hundreds of people suffering an array of health effects that some blame on exposure to radiation and chemicals from federal nuclear sites around the nation, Capitol Hill lawmakers introduced legislation to further study the possible connection.

This might lead to further compensation if victims are found and causes can be identified, Schultz said.