“Maybe some employees drank it, who knows,” Lafflam said in response to this reporter’s questions at a Department of Energy and Boeing community meeting in 2004. “It’s the way it is. It’s the way we did it in the ’60s.”
Klea was oblivious to the water she was drinking at the lab, as were most other workers on The Hill. After her two-year Department of Energy stint in Area IV, Klea worked for Rocketdyne in Area I and at the company’s huge Canoga Park plant for six years. She also worked on the DOE’s nuclear program at Rocketdyne’s DeSoto complex in the west San Fernando Valley.
In 1971, Klea and her husband bought a house close to SSFL and started a family. The fulltime mother devoted herself to her two sons, and her years of working close to 10 nuclear reactors were put far into the recesses of her mind. Klea and her husband separated in 1994, and it was during this period that she began having health problems with her bladder.
“By 1994, the pelvic pain was constant and unbearable,” Klea says. “My HMO treated me for bladder infections and menopause for nine months instead of referring me to a urologist to look into the bladder. By 1995, I went into the waiting room in my doctor’s office crying and screaming from the pain for a referral to a urologist. The urologist discovered a 1-centimeter-sized tumor in my bladder. Surgery was required to remove the tumor and to do a pathology test. Alone in the doctors office, I was given the news that I had cancer and had to have my bladder removed or I would die.”
Klea began a medical odyssey that she thought she’d never take since she had been so careful with diet and exercise and had never smoked. Klea decided to fight the cancer aggressively.
“The surgery was extensive and very risky,” Klea says. “I learned that Mayo Clinic did not recommend this surgery for women because our urethra is very short. I consulted with a local oncologist about doing chemotherapy, and he warned me that it was risky to do chemo instead of bladder removal. He also asked me where I worked because bladder cancer is an occupational cancer and quite rare in women. The light went on when I told him that I worked at Atomics International. He said that he was treating many workers from A.I. Previously, he had written a letter to them and asked what they were doing to their workers to cause so many cancers. After weighing all my options and after much prayer, I chose to save my bladder and do chemotherapy followed by radiation.”
Fifteen years later, Klea is cancer free, a “miracle patient” say her doctors. She is also full of fight in her battle to get herself and other atomic workers their fair compensation for their suffering. This struggle seems, at times, harder than beating bladder cancer.
Klea lost her battle for worker’s compensation, in which she says she was threatened by corporate lawyers who blamed her for the illness, claiming that it was household chemicals, airplane flights and drinking sodas that had caused her cancer. She failed in that fight but she learned a lot.
In 2006, Klea started preparing her case for Special Exposure Cohort (SEC) status for SSFL but had to prove to NIOSH that the lab had bad worker radiation monitoring or none at all, and falsified data. Using a box of information collected from 10 years of participation in the Workgroup meetings, she began to piece together a puzzle she found very disturbing, one that included a suspect environmental monitoring program at Rocketdyne where samples were routinely burned in order to lower the radiation values.
“I started rereading everything I had, made notes and did highlighting,” Klea says. “I spent one year reading, copying records and summarizing for NIOSH the reasons why Santa Susana should have the SEC status.”
In May of 2007, NIOSH sent letters to applicants whose claims had been denied about a special meeting to inform them of the SEC program. Klea handed her petition to their representatives at this time and met many claimants and heard their stories of cancer and denial of benefits. Her petition qualified for acceptance later that year and, by 2009, all the workers or their families were paid for 1955 through 1958. NIOSH found that the internal monitoring for Santa Susana was inadequate and because all the facilities used the same monitoring program, Downey, DeSoto and Canoga facilities now have a very good chance of having claims paid, though the vast majority have not been settled.