A Book Review of Atomic Farmgirl: The Hanford Nuclear Site and the Tragedy of the Downwinders
Atomic Farmgirl is a well-written account of the life of a downwinder’s family and her neighbors in the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington State. A downwinder is a person who lived in the area where iodine-131, Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s nuclear waste, was released in the late 1940s through the 1950s. After the Freedom of Information Act was passed and the Spokesman Review started researching the releases and comparing them with the wind patterns, this information became available to the populous at large.
This downwinder’s story is open, honest, and filled with excellent examples of character development. The author, Teri Hein, paints a picture of life in small town farm communities in eastern Washington. She covers the rolling hills, harvest time, wheat, Steptoe Butte, loess, bird-hunting, small schools, churches, football, basketball, baseball, parades, horses, and the list of goes on – joyous memories of growing up in a small farming community. However, some looming treachery began to emerge. First, her father, then a neighbor boy, another childhood friend, a neighboring mother, and the list grew over two decades. These people, the ones she knew most closely began to get sick and most died. They contracted thyroid disease or cancer in one of its many forms – leukemia, lupus, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and more. Eventually, Teri became aware that something unique and sinister was occurring in her neighborhood, as seven of the ten farm families within a square mile had come down with the diseases. In most of those families it was multiple members with thyroid disease or cancer. Her book covers the lives of those victims.
Like Teri, I grew up in one of these small towns – Oakesdale, just 25 miles southwest of Teri’s beloved Fairfield. If you draw a 100-mile line between the Hanford site and Fairfield, Oakesdale will be bisected by that line, a line which also represents the prevailing southwesterlies. The experience of my neighborhood is congruent to that of Teri’s neighborhood.
One cold winter morning in the mid-fifties we awoke to a freshly fallen cover of snow. It was dotted with beautiful pink spots like some miracle, but it was not from nature, nor from heaven. I believe it was one of the many releases of radioactive toxins from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. We frolicked in that snow, made snow angels and snowmen. Within the year, my closest neighbors Tom Crossett and Ray Ebert developed thyroid disease. Subsequently, Tom’s sister Suzy Crossett, my cousin Susan Gregory, Tom’s closest friends Danny Horn and Mike Lamb, my closest friend John Rogers, and three of the four Byrum brothers have all died of cancer, long before their time. Consequently, Teri’s account is deeply poignant to me. Although I knew some of her older friends, I’ve never met Teri Hein, but I feel as if I’ve known her all my life. Teri filets her soul open to the world and exposes every nerve.
I highly recommend Atomic Farmgirl: Growing Up Right in the Wrong Place. Everyone should be aware of this tragedy.