Body burden: the amount of radioactive material present in a human body.
“Governments aren’t supposed to poison their own people.”
“I’ve had my life but its highly questionable whether you will have yours, my children.”
“Treat everyone you meet with dignity and respect, but have a plan to kill them just in case.”
Prior to our class discussions on nuclear power and environmental injustice, I hardly ever gave them any thought. Now I’m obsessed. In the film Atomic States of America, several individuals from Suffolk County speak about the nuclear contamination present in their area. The NRC has known about the contamination since 2000 but continues to tell families that their water is safe to drink, regardless of the fact that its obviously not. Since the discovery of local contamination, the childhood cancer rate in Suffolk County has soared, with multiple children diagnosed on a single street. They say it is only the “friendly atom spreading its love” but the locals know better and fight for justice.
The documentary immediately inspired me to research the conditions near my hometown of Peabody, Massachusetts. Of course I am no stranger to the story of contamination in nearby Woburn, but I wanted to learn more. If 104 of the 450 world commercial nuclear reactors exist in the United States, something more is bound to be happening in my neck of the woods. I began my research where I begin all my Internet endeavors: Google. Unsurprisingly, I was first brought to news about Woburn, so I gandered, and stumbled across this lovely quote from 2011: “From Cape Cod to the Berkshires and beyond, few communities are left untouched by the contamination.” Fabulous. After that, my fascination with contamination only skyrocketed. Google soon brought a story to my attention that hasn’t honestly crossed my mind since the event occurred in 2006. At 2:45AM, the morning before Thanksgiving, the Danvers ink and paint plant exploded and damaged over 270 buildings, destroying businesses and leaving more than 400 people homeless. Governor of Massachusetts at the time, Mitt Romney, called the chemical fire, “the Thanksgiving miracle” because even though the explosion was equivalent to the damage from “a 2,000 lb bomb”, not a single fatality had resulted. Hold on, a 2000 lb bomb? Why didn’t I know more about this? The EPA found low levels of toluene in the water but since the water had not been part of the local drinking water supply, citizens weren’t notified. Five years later, the EPA finally reached a $1.3 million settlement from the plant as a reimbursement for hazardous waste cleanup and violation of the Clean Air Act. Then there was the explosion at the Middleton Bostik chemical plant my senior year of high school. The EPA ran a series of test there as well, and detected compounds such as toluene, methyl ethyl ketone, acetone, and ether acetate. Again the levels were deemed safe but after watching Atomic States of America, I am skeptical. Both of these catastrophes were heard from several miles away but nobody seemed to talk about the environmental effects. Woburn, Danvers, and Bostik have me cornered, and I feel like I’m doomed.
In the book, Full Body Burden, Kristen Iverson shares her own experience with nuclear radiation in Arvada, Colorado. Her family lived for years practically on top of Rocky Flats and yet nobody in the neighborhood had any idea what was going on there. People were noticing the genetic defects in livestock as well as the increase of cancer prevalence in the neighborhood but they couldn’t figure out why. Various members of public health and environmental organizations tested the area around Rocky Flats for toxic material. Slowly but surely, the truth was coming out but the government didn’t like it. After deeming home developments near Rocky Flats “unsafe,” Dr. Carl Johnson was fired for his work. The plant continued to produce plutonium pits, or “triggers”, that were small spherical explosives created for atomic chain reactions. The emissions attached to the triggers contained enough breathable material to kill not just some but lots of people. More than 5000 barrels of waste were left in the open for over 11 years completely unknown to the public. Radioactive material leaked into the soil, contaminated groundwater, and carried the toxic waste offsite. After further testing, Plutonium was detected in animals and children’s playgrounds and yet nothing was done to stop Rocky Flats.
When Kristen Iverson visited campus she talked more about the secrecy and silence surrounding Rocky Flats. Her own parents thought the plant was responsible for nothing more than the production of cleaning supplies. They had no idea that their holiday turkeys were deformed and contaminated by Rocky Flats. That made me think a lot about the food I eat. Besides the meals I cook at home, I have no idea where my food is coming from. This campus is helpless. Despite the students’ arguments against the endless list of proven health violations surrounding campus dining, we are subjected to terrible food quality.
No Family History made me think more about cancer occurring in people with exactly what the title says, no family history. People can go their whole lives eating well, exercising, and never picking up a cigarette, but still develop cancer. Why is that? As the short documentary explains, cancer is in the environment but nobody ever talks about prevention regarding such carcinogens. People are stuck under the illusion that the government will notify us when the environment is unsafe but they won’t. The only thing we can do to protect ourselves is by doing the research on our own and educating the people we care about.