From: Tim Connor
To: Seattle Times, Opinion Editor
Date: Sunday, January 17, 1999
Re: Letter to the Editor,
One would have thought Hanford downwinders had suffered enough lies and disinformation over the past 50 years. But now comes former Republican Fifth District Congressional candidate and Spokane surgeon John Sonneland with some home-cooked cancer statistics to tell them and us that all is well in the shadows of Hanford's nuclear plants. ("Hanford radiation worries unfounded," Seattle Times guest column, January 14th).
Dr. Sonneland's proposition is that if people living in eastern Washington have been injured by Hanford radiation, we would "see" this evidence by taking the thyroid cancer incidence and death rates observed at hospitals in Spokane and Yakima and comparing them to those recorded nationally and on the west side of the state.
There are several problems with this foggy hypothesis, problems Dr. Sonneland is either oblivious to or simply choosing not to share with readers. Among them:
*Essentially all of the radioactive iodine released from Hanford was emitted between 1945 and 1951. By far the most vulnerable population is that subset of the Columbia basin population who were infants and young children and drinking fresh milk during those years. One large confounder with the geographic comparisons Dr. Sonneland offers is that a good many of the children exposed to Hanford emissions have left eastern Washington and, thus, are not going to show up at hospitals in Spokane and Yakima.
*Given the limits of epidemiologic detection, if we are to "see" any increased health effects from Hanford releases it is going to be by carefully tracking the more highly exposed and vulnerable population (see above) and then comparing their thyroid cancer and thyroid disease rate to that of a carefully selected control population. Overall, the crude methods and reasoning chosen by Dr. Sonneland and his brethren surgeon Dr. Williams are tantamount to looking at Jupiter with football binoculars and then declaring the great planet has no moons.
*Perhaps Dr. Sonneland missed it, but in 1997 the National Cancer Institute (NCI) released a lengthy and well-publicized study reporting that atmospheric atomic bomb testing in Nevada during the 1950s dispersed more than 150 times the radioactive iodine reported to have been released from Hanford. The result is that millions of Americans (including many living in the Pacific Northwest at the time) also received thyroid doses that put them at greater risk for thyroid cancer. Indeed, NCI's best estimate is that approximately 49,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer will result nationwide from these exposures. What does this mean? It means Hanford-caused thyroid cancers--in the numbers we would expect given the size of the critically exposed population and the scale of the radiation doses--can easily be made to disappear in statistical camouflage like the kind Dr. Sonneland is passing out.
All of which begs the real issue here. Why has Dr. Sonneland chosen this moment to share these rather meaningless statistics with readers of the Seattle Times? The long-awaited results of the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study, incorporating a sophisticated dose and thyroid disease analysis, are due out by the end of the month. Why not wait a couple weeks to see what the results are? What is the good doctor's motivation?
An insight into Dr. Sonneland's orientation about pollution and public health comes from another eastern Washington public health controversy, this one involving the respiratory distress inflicted by smoke from large-scale agricultural burning. By 1996, the increase in illnesses associated with smoke from commercial bluegrass burning in the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene corridor triggered a revolt in the area's medical community. The American Lung Association of Washington, the Washington Thoracic, the Idaho Medical Association and the Spokane Medical Society all went on record reporting the problem, as did more than 300 area physicians, including all of the area's lung specialists.
Against the weight of these opinions, there was one physician in the region who publicly sided with the bluegrass burners--John Sonneland. "For those wishing to cripple a $35,000,000 a year industry," Dr. Sonneland complained in a letter to the Washington Department of Ecology, "hard facts should first be obtained." Yet, Dr. Sonneland's interpretation of the "hard facts" in the bluegrass debate were so flawed that his views were singled out for criticism by Dr. Jane Koenig (a nationally-respected air pollution/health researcher at the University of Washington) in a September 1996 affadavit supporting Ecology's decision to all but eliminate commercial grass burning in Washington.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Dr. Sonneland's ideological kinship with industry is what drives his dubious forays into epidemiology. In the future, it will better serve the public if he sticks to surgery and leaves the health science to researchers who care more about the quality of the evidence than they care about the economic or political consequences of the results.
Tim Connor is a Spokane writer and author of "Burdens of Proof, Science and Public Accountability in the Field of Environmental Epidemiology." Since 1992 he has been a member of the federal Advisory Committee on Energy-Related Epidemiologic Research which advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services on federal radiation research policy and priorities.