By Sarita Hemmady
What are the most pressing public health issues for our state to tackle? Is Hanford on your list? It wasn’t on mine, but it is now. I’m a Master of Public Health (MPH) student at the University of Washington in the Health Services Department. Though I was raised in the Pacific Northwest, I hadn’t heard of Hanford until I was assigned to complete a practicum project for my program with Hanford Challenge. I was blown away when I learned about what Hanford is, the recent plutonium releases that contaminated 42 workers, and the impacts exposures to radioactive particles have on individuals’ health.
Before learning about Hanford, I didn’t have a strong interest in environmental health. I got into public health because of my interest in population health, health equity, chronic disease management and prevention, and health policy. Now though, I see clear connections between my initial public health interests and Hanford, that I didn’t see before.
First, attending a union meeting with former and current employees at the site helped to illuminate the issues with health equity and education, and the broken safety culture at Hanford. Some former employees who have been exposed to varying doses of radiation and chemicals over time now suffer from severe chronic conditions now, while others have died prematurely. Exacerbating these health problems are (1) the difficult process to gain coverage for injuries and illnesses acquired on the job (2) the lack of epidemiological studies linking exposures to chemicals and/or radioactive particles to the adverse health outcomes experienced by employees (3) and the shortage of physicians in the areas around Hanford who are experienced with environmental hazards and toxicology. Sometimes individuals have to travel three hours to Seattle just to be seen by a qualified specialist. In addition to the health problems former and current workers face, there is a need for improved literature given to employees to fully educate them on the potential hazards associated with working at Hanford and strategies to prevent exposures on-site.
Second, throughout the past three months, it has become apparent to me that many people in my age group aren’t familiar with Hanford, and that the general public isn’t fully aware of the issues present at Hanford. It will be difficult to see government enact any sweeping reforms to the occupational health and safety problems at Hanford until they receive enough public pressure. It is crucial that we all talk about Hanford, whether it be with congressional representatives or friends and family. After the recent 2017 accidents that exposed 42 workers, it is more urgent than ever that high level policy changes be passed to better protect occupational health and safety, as well as population health. These issues don’t just affect the workers, they impact whole communities.
Though Hanford is a beast of a problem, the challenges it presents are not insurmountable if various sectors and individuals join forces. Public health professionals have a unique expertise they can contribute to the efforts.