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Field Lab Neighbors Call for Bigger Study

Cancer: Citing mysterious illnesses and deaths over the years, community residents want an investigation into whether they might have been affected by testing at Rocketdyne.


SIMI VALLEY — In the community meetings held to discuss a new study linking nuclear testing at Rocketdyne to higher death rates from cancer among employees, the inevitable question pops up:

What about the residents who live near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory--do they run a higher risk of dying from cancer?

It's a question that UCLA researchers cannot answer, because their study, released Thursday, looked at 4,600 past and present Rocketdyne workers, not community members.

But their findings--that radiation-exposed Rocketdyne workers have an increased risk of dying from cancer--have only piqued residents' concerns. A second study is planned on the cancer mortality risk suffered by workers exposed to dangerous chemicals at the lab.

Rocketdyne neighbors are adding to the community clamor for yet another study, a bigger study. One that includes people living in the Santa Susana Knolls, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, West Hills and Box and Bell canyons.

Before a Friday night community meeting at the Radisson Hotel in Simi Valley, former Santa Susana Knolls resident Astrid Breuer explained her concerns.

"I want to know, is it possible that any residual contamination came down the hill?" asked Breuer, who moved to Thousand Oaks after her husband and dog died of cancer. "Is it possible that it affected my husband, who died at 40, without any warning? They used to roam those hills together."

Like Breuer, many of the 100 people at the meeting favored a study of the surrounding communities.

Experts disagree on what sort of community study is necessary.

Rocketdyne officials say they have already conducted a study proving that the communities' ground water, surface water, soil and vegetation are not tainted, except at the Brandeis-BardinInstitute that abuts the field lab.

Members of the oversight panel that monitored the new UCLA research, however, say previous analysis was lacking. They are seeking a community study that would correlate any radiation released from Rocketdyne with medical histories and causes of death for people who have lived near the field lab.


But all seem in agreement on these points: Such a study would be very difficult, very time-consuming and very expensive.

"These kinds of [community] studies take very good research teams, and they take money," said David Michaels, a professor of epidemiology at the City University of New York Medical School, who serves on the oversight panel. "I don't see any government agency stepping forward and saying, 'We'll fund it.' I don't see Rocketdyne stepping forward and saying, 'We'll fund it.' "

The UCLA study took five years and cost the U.S. Department of Energy $1.6 million. Looking at 10,000, 50,000 or 100,000 people who live around the facility would likely take more time and more cash, Michaels said.

One of the oversight panel's chief recommendations was that a similar study of cancer deaths take place in the neighborhoods surrounding the 2,668-acre field lab, which was the site of nuclear research between the 1950s and the late 1980s.

Dr. Robert Harrison, the state health department's chief of occupational health surveillance, said his department will work with all parties involved over the next six to nine months to determine the feasibility of a community study. They will also look at what type of study would yield the most useful results for the worried residents.

"We don't want to do a study that's so limited in that we won't be able to give answers to the community that are meaningful," he said.

But Dr. CaesarJulian, a longtime Simi Valley physician who sat on the advisory panel, is concerned that dawdling another half-year could endanger residents' health.

"My opinion is that we don't need to worry about feasibility; we need resolve," he said. "It is feasible. It must be done. We shouldn't delay."

The first step of any community study would involve looking at how any contaminants could work their way down the field lab's massive hill, surrounded by craggy rock formations, to the houses, soil and ground water below. Any contamination found would have to be measured to determine residents' exposure to possible carcinogens.

"I realize that the principal concern of the community has to do with personal health issues," said David Gute, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University, who reviewed the UCLA study for Rocketdyne. "But the surest way for us to pursue that is by looking at pathways for exposure."


Rocketdyne is willing to pay for more radiation and chemical testing of the surrounding communities, said Steve Lafflam, the company's director of safety, health and environmental affairs.

From there, the logistics grow trickier, say both scientists hired by Rocketdyne and the members of the oversight committee.

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