New Mexico's Right to Know: The Impacts of Los Alamos National Laboratory Operations on Public Health and the Environment (.pdf)

Press Release: New Report Urges "Dose Reconstruction" of LANL; CCNS Researchers Document Need for Thorough Analysis of Historical Radioactive and Chemical Releases to Protect Human Health

New Mexico's Right to Know:
The Impacts of Los Alamos National Laboratory Operations on Public Health and the Environment

Nuclear-related activities have been continuous in Los Alamos County (LAC) since the development of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in 1943. These activities result in emissions of radionuclides into the air, discharges of radioactive liquids into canyon systems and disposal of radioactive waste in canyons and on mesa tops above the Rio Grande.

LANL is the last major Department of Energy (DOE) site scheduled to undergo a dose reconstruction, a study that estimates the amount of radioactivity and chemicals to which an individual may have been exposed based on the amounts of radioactivity and chemicals released by a facility. Unlike at other DOE sites, LANL workers do not have a dose reconstruction to support their claims under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000 (EEOICPA), and the extent to which LANL employees and LAC residents have been exposed remains unclear. Since LANL employees and LAC residents may receive the highest dose of radiation because of their proximity to the facility, their exposure may serve as an indicator of impacts to those living in the surrounding communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has begun the first phase of a five-phase dose reconstruction at LANL called the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment Project (LAHDRA). The CDC has found that the soil surrounding LANL may contain as much as 100 times more plutonium than was previously estimated, and that autopsies of LAC residents who never worked at LANL have revealed plutonium levels higher than regional background levels. The CDC has instructed its contractors to conclude the first phase of the LAHDRA and it is uncertain if or when the project will continue. New Mexico's Right to Know examines historical radionuclide and chemical releases from LANL, the results of which strongly support the need to continue the LAHDRA.

The three chapters within New Mexico's Right to Know investigate the following public health issues concerning LANL emissions:

  • Historical and current emissions of radioactive materials from LANL operations into the air;
  • Incidence and mortality rates for LAC residents for 24 types of cancer compared with state and national reference populations; and
  • Occupational health studies of LANL employees exposed to radionuclides.

The authors of New Mexico's Right to Know state the following:

  • The current release estimates for plutonium isotopes of 3.4 curies (Ci) are more than twice those previously estimated.
  • The LANL historical plutonium emissions into the air of 3.4 Ci is about 20 times the amount of plutonium that was deposited onto the LANL site from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, based on current estimates.
  • Comparing the current LANL plutonium emission estimates with those of other DOE sites with dose reconstruction studies, the plutonium source term for LANL (3.4 Ci) is about twice that of releases from the Hanford site (1.78 Ci) and about seven times less than Rocky Flats releases (24.2 Ci).
  • Comparing distances from the DOE facilities to homes and businesses, the LANL property is closer (less than one mile) than either Hanford (15 miles) or Rocky Flats (five miles).
  • Visitors to the LANL site could receive an effective dose in excess of 10 millirem per year from plutonium emissions under unfavorable circumstances (e.g., short-term emissions), even though the emissions would be reported to be in formal compliance with 40 CFR 61, Subpart H of the Clean Air Act.
  • The ability of LANL's ambient air monitoring system, AIRNET, to detect releases from unmonitored point or diffuse sources, such as waste sites, needs to be carefully analyzed.
  • The incidence of several major types of cancers was significantly elevated in LAC and include: breast, melanoma, non-Hodgkin¹s lymphoma, ovary, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancers. Claims for all seven of these cancers may be filed under the EEOICPA.
  • A 1993 New Mexico Department of Health report found a moderate increase in the incidence rate for cancer of the brain and nervous system during the mid to late-1980s.
  • Mortality rates for breast cancer in LAC are elevated by 41% when compared to the state rates and also are elevated when compared to the U.S. Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program (U.S. SEER) sites between 1991-1995.
  • Mortality rates for melanoma and ovarian cancers in LAC are elevated when compared to the state rate and elevated when compared to the U.S. rates.
  • Only employees of primary contractors have been included in occupational health studies at LANL. They have included only employees of the manager and operator of LANL, the University of California (UC), and the maintenance, construction and support service workers (which includes many Hispanics and Native Americans). Health studies have not been conducted of employees of other contractors or subcontractors.
  • Most of the occupational health studies at LANL have been limited to white Anglo UC employees. In one study, personnel records were available for 97% of the UC workers, but only 20% of the support workers, and urinalysis records were available for 39% of the UC workers, but only four percent of the support workers.

Based on the findings, conclusions and recommendations presented in these reports, CCNS and the authors strongly recommend that:

  • The CDC continues its LAHDRA work uninterrupted.
  • Vulnerable populations, including children and the elderly, be included in the dose reconstruction.
  • Given the uncertainties associated with exposures and diseases, it is important that occupational and environmental exposures to hazardous agents be minimized and that workers and the general public be involved in decisionmaking about exposure standards and health related research.
  • New Mexicans have the right to know the levels of radionuclides and chemicals to which they may have been exposed due to LANL operations.
    August 29, 2003