UC shares Fernald radiation data
Research conducted over 17 years
By Terry Kinney
Zoom AL BEHRMAN/Associated Press file photo
In 2006, Lisa Crawford talked about the $4.4 billion cleanup of the former Fernald uranium processing plant in Cincinnati. Crawford helped form FRESH — Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health.
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Nearly two decades of observations of thousands of people who lived near a Cold War uranium-refining plant will be shared by the University of Cincinnati with other researchers in an effort to further understand the health effects of low-level radiation.
In one of the nation’s longest such studies, the Fernald Medical Monitoring Program is drawing to an end after 17 years of collecting data from more than 9,500 people who lived near the Feed Materials Production Center at Fernald in Crosby Township.
“Our greatest hope is that by studying this, this will help another community. I don’t want to see it just put on a shelf,” said Lisa Crawford, who lives near the site and helped form FRESH – Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health.
A federal judge created the monitoring program in 1989 as part of a class-action lawsuit filed by Crawford and her husband and others who lived within five miles of the production center. The government plant, which was part of the nation’s nuclear weapons program during the Cold War, was closed in 1989.
Researchers collected blood and urine specimens and kidney and liver function tests, and participants completed exhaustive questionnaires – a 27-page initial survey followed by annual surveys of about 14 pages each – that asked for details of new medical problems and hospitalizations.
“That’s valuable because sometimes there is what we call ‘recall bias’ when people who get a disease misremember what led up to it,” said Susan Pinney, a professor of environmental health at UC who has served as epidemiologist on the project.
Researchers could find several uses for the data, according to Dr. John Fiveash, a radiation oncologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who studies the effects of long-term radiation treatment.
It might be useful in studying the effects of diagnostic X-rays, for example, and could even have applications in terrorist situations, such as exposure to a dirty bomb.
“This might be used to determine which groups of people might need treatment down the road, and which groups might need immediate care,” Fiveash said.
The Fernald plant opened in 1951 and was so secret that workers were told not to tell friends and family what they did. But after 30 years, government documents revealed that almost 300 pounds of enriched uranium oxide dust had been released into the air from a faulty dust collection system.
The Energy Department also disclosed that radon gas had been leaking from storage silos for years.
The government settled the residents’ suit in 1989 for $78 million, including funding for monitoring and medical testing through 2008 for nearby residents. Fernald workers also sued and reached a $20 million settlement with the government in 1994 that included lifetime medical monitoring.