Two new reports find elevated cancers and other risks within a few miles of Rocketdyne

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles ValleyBeat – February 16, 2006

The FalloutOn February 2, two long-anticipated UCLA studies analyzing cancer rates and toxic contamination around Boeing’s massive Santa Susana Field Laboratory were finally released. Years in the making, the reports don’t bode well for people living close to SSFL, formerly known as Rocketdyne, which sprawls across 2,850 acres in the towering hills between the Simi and San Fernando valleys.

The reports include several alarming results, including a documented spike in cancers among the Hispanic population and a plethora of “potential offsite hotspots” that may be attributable to SSFL activities, which include a history of massive radiological and chemical contamination since Rocketdyne began operating in the late 1940s.

The UCLA Collaborative Project is the most comprehensive analysis of SSFL-related health woes to date, though several studies have preceded it and only some have made links between health problems and Rocketdyne. Boeing recently settled a lawsuit brought by many local residents who believed their cancers and other illnesses were directly related to the facility.

A 1990 Department of Health Services survey of cancer records found elevated bladder cancers in the census tracts closest to the lab. A subsequent review of that data, however, concluded in 1992 that there was no definitive link between the additional cancers and operations at SSFL. In 1997, UCLA researchers released a study of Rocketdyne workers that showed higher mortality rates of lung cancers due to external radiation exposure and increased upper-aerodigestive-tract cancers from internal radiation. Two years later, another UCLA study revealed that workers exposed to the rocket fuel additive hydrazine had elevated death rates of lymphopoetic and bladder/kidney cancers.

The new studies were commissioned in 2000 by the state Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, at a cost of $700,000, after ATSDR had outraged the community by performing a month-long preliminary review the year before and declaring that SSFL chemicals and radiation were harmless to locals. Stung by the reaction, ATSDR hired the Massachusetts-based Eastern Research Group to perform a new public health study. ERG subsequently subcontracted with Dr. Hal Morgenstern, chair of the epidemiology department at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, and Dr. Yoram Cohen, a UCLA chemical engineering professor, to conduct a new cancer rate study as well as an analysis for potential offsite exposure to chemical contaminants related to SSFL. Though the lab is the site of numerous radiation releases, including a partial meltdown of an experimental sodium-cooled reactor in 1959, radionuclides were not the main focus in the analysis.

The part of the study looking at cancer incidence did look for “cancers for which the risk is thought to be affected by exposure to ionizing radiation or chemicals used” at the lab, including hydrazine and the carcinogenic rocket engine solvent trichloroethylene (TCE). Morgenstern’s team analyzed over 600,000 diagnosed cancers, listed in the California Tumor Registry, suffered by residents of Ventura and Los Angeles counties from 1988 to 2003. Two groups were carved from this timeframe – 1988-1995 and 1996-2003.

The task force looked for “radiosensitive” cancers of the bone, lung, thyroid, and female breast, as well as leukemia. “Chemosensitive” cancers analyzed included bladder, liver, kidney, lung, and bone marrow. Morgenstern divided the cancer incidents into three proxy measures of exposure: folks living within two miles of the lab, between two and five miles away, and people over five miles distant from SSFL.

“Preliminary findings suggest that cancer incidence is elevated among persons living closest to SSFL, particularly in the Hispanic population; but to attribute these results to the effects of exposures originating at SSFL would require further work,” Morgenstern’s interim report stated. (Boeing has declined to comment on either Morgenstern’s or Cohen’s preliminary findings until it has had a chance to review the full reports, which should soon become available.)

The cancer results were nothing less than astonishing. Hispanics living within two miles of SSFL had 38 percent higher rates of all cancers than Hispanics (and non-Hispanic whites) living over five miles away from the lab and a 252-percent-higher ratio for chemosensitive cancers. Within the same distances and parameters, Hispanics living within two miles of SSFL had 189 percent higher rates of lung cancer, 271 percent more bladder cancer and 430 percent higher rates of melanomas.

“I can see a reporter writing a headline, ‘Whites immune from radiation,'” speculated longtime Rocketdyne critic Dan Hirsch at the SSFL Work Group meeting in Simi Valley, where the preliminary findings were explained to an concerned crowd of about 100 residents and political representatives. Morgenstern agreed. “Someone might try to draw a biogenetic conclusion from this which would be wrong,” he cautioned. “Please don’t over-interpret that.”

But Morgenstern didn’t downplay the importance of the findings. “I didn’t think that we would see results that would amount to anything. In fact, we found associations between levels of ionizing radiation as well as indicators of exposure to chemicals at rocket engine test stands and certain types of cancer.”

Dr. Cohen’s report focused primarily on chemicals of concern used at SSFL and their spread to the surrounding communities. His study determined that 1,491 tons of hydrazine were used at Rocketdyne from 1955 through 1990. Out of 1.1 million gallons of TCE used to hose down rocket engines after 30,000 rocket engine tests conducted at the outdoor lab, the report concluded that 313,000 gallons of TCE had sunk into the subsurface which has subsequently contaminated groundwater and spread offsite, as ValleyBeat has previously reported. One offsite well overlooking the San Fernando Valley, RD-38, had TCE concentrations over 134 times the government-mandated “maximum contaminant level” for the chemical when tested in August 1994.

TCE is “a nonflammable, colorless liquid with a somewhat sweet odor and a sweet, burning taste,” according to a document supplied by the public health association Physicians for Social Responsibility. In December 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in that document that “TCE is five-to-65 times more toxic than previously thought when inhaled.”

Drinking small amounts of TCE for long periods may harm immune system function, damage the liver and kidneys, and may impair fetal development in pregnant women. Inhaling large amounts of TCE may cause unconsciousness, impaired heart function, and death.

In early 2003, Physicians for Social Responsibility estimated for this reporter that one TCE vapor reading at SSFL was 195 million times over the government’s “preliminary remediation goal” for the deadly vaporized solvent. That’s not good news for two neighborhoods on the west end of the San Fernando Valley – Bell Canyon and the mansion-studded hills between Simi and San Fernando just south of the 118 freeway, which are branded in Cohen’s report as “identified hotspots.” Four other nearby neighborhoods are listed as “potential hotspots,” including West Hills, and Dayton and Woolsey canyons, which rise up into the Santa Susana Mountains on the west end of the valley.

Cohen’s report notes that “there is potential for offsite chronic exposures within 1-2 miles of SSFL which includes, but is not limited to TCE emissions from SSFL-activities via inhalation in West Hills, Bell Canyon, Dayton Canyon, and Simi Valley,” as well as “hydrazine (and oxidation product NDMA) via inhalation of emissions from SSFL in Bell Canyon and West Hills.”

The offsite exposure study concludes with this recommendation, which is a blow to Boeing’s long-term plans to develop and sell the property: “Onsite unrestricted SSFL land use is not recommended given the present target cleanup levels.”

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