The illnesses’ link to the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, they acknowledge, is hard to prove. People get sick, and sometimes no one knows why. Health conditions are often worse than average in southern Ohio for a variety of reasons.
But in a county of 28,000, sickness seems prolific. And the May 13 closure of the middle school, with an enrollment of a little more than 300, has spurred a creeping fear that the children’s health problems were not just an unwelcome twist of fate.
“If you have half a thyroid here, you’re doing good,” said Ramona Davis-Lee of Waverly.
Davis-Lee, who grew up less than a mile from the plant, had a craniotomy in 2012 to remove a benign brain tumor from her skull. Her mother, who worked in the plant, was diagnosed with an ocular melanoma that metastasized and eventually killed her.
For years, many assumed illness was largely limited to those who worked in the plant. But Zahn’s Corner has made that fear far broader.
“Zahn’s Corner really set it off,” Davis-Lee said. “The fear of what’s happening — is my child going to die from cancer? Is my child going to have some illness? Is it true they’re covering this up? Is it true they’re not doing the clean-up properly? What else do we not know?”
At least two class-action lawsuits — one filed in late May and one filed last week — have documented those fears. The first alleges that neighbors of the former uranium enrichment plant were exposed to radiation as a result of the construction of a disposal cell on the site beginning in 2017.
The second alleges that the community is being put at risk by the cleanup’s “poor containment and shoddy shutdown procedures.” It reports that tests on deer killed by cars showed uranium isotopes in the livers of the deer as well of traces of uranium found in milk and egg samples from area farms.
Pike County’s cancer rate in 2019 was the second highest in Ohio, according to the Ohio Cancer Incidence Surveillance System at the Ohio Department of Health.
Matt Brewster of the Pike County Health Department said he has asked the Centers for Disease Control to do a cancer cluster study on the region. That won’t happen until a third-party assessment of the contamination is complete.
Meanwhile, 479 people have filled out an online cancer cluster study form who add to a list of 115 names from a community group — a total of nearly 600 responses from people who claim to have cancer or negative health effects and who live near or are connected to the plant. It is, Brewster said, “an alarming number for a community our size.”
The challenge is determining whether the cancer is linked to radiation or other causes, such as genetics, other environmental factors or lifestyle choices such as smoking.
Scientists agree that radiation causes most kinds of cancer. But, said Martha Linet, a senior investigator with the National Cancer Institute, “there’s not a strong biomarker that says, ‘this cancer was caused by radiation.’”
“We know the causes of a fair number of things,” she said. “But the causes of most cancers are unknown.”
Linet said most of the research done to gauge the impact of radiation was conducted on 120,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Scientists found three notable facts:
First, those exposed were 11 percent more inclined to develop cancer, although that number changes each year as the population affected ages.
Second, the age at which they developed cancer was the same age when cancer typically develops.
“If you were a younger child at the time of your exposure, your risk is overall higher than if you were an adult at the time of the exposure,” she said.
Linet said it would be difficult to study Pike County’s suspected cancer cluster for a variety of reasons, including the small population of the region.
“Unfortunately, epidemiology is a pretty crude tool for cancer clusters, because the numbers are small,” she said, adding that it’s even tougher when the types of cancers are different.
Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, acknowledges that cancers can be caused by a variety of factors. But radioactive contamination, he said, can be associated with an increase “in every kind of cancer — some more than others.”
The lower the exposure, he said, the lower the risk. But children are much more susceptible, and women are more susceptible than men.
Though the Department of Energy has repeatedly assured the communities that the levels are safe, “nobody wants to breathe plutonium,” Makhijani said.
“I’ve long advised the DOE to not say there are levels that are safe,” Makhijani said. “Unfortunately, that’s not normally the process which they follow.”
Kim Ealey of Portsmouth worries that the plant caused her son’s chronic illness.
Nathan Hawkins, who now lives outside Lexington, Kentucky, is 38. His problems include severe asthma, eye issues that led to a cornea transplant and a severe skin condition.
“His dermatologist said he’s never seen anyone like him,” she said, sharing that her son “has suffered his entire life.”
She and her husband both worked at the plant. She had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he had prostate and skin cancers.
For years, she wondered if her son’s illness was caused by her work in the plant. But the Zahn’s Corner attention broadened her worries. Her son went there from kindergarten through fifth grade. She wonders if the contamination was present even when he attended.
She wishes that the Energy Department had notified the school when the contamination was noticed, rather than two years after air monitors picked up neptunium.
“Why didn’t they get them in off the playground, if nothing else?” she said.
Davis-Lee, 53, tells people she’s not afraid to talk about her suspicions that the contamination from the old “A-Plant” has spurred health problems in her community. She has nothing to lose, she said.
Her brother, who worked in the plant, had four types of lung illnesses. He smoked but also was exposed to asbestos at the plant. He died in a 2012 fire.
Her mother worked there, and she died from cancer in 2014. And in 2012, Davis-Lee, who never worked at the plant, was diagnosed with a meningioma — a benign brain tumor. Davis-Lee had to have brain surgery. The remaining headaches, dizziness and vertigo are debilitating, she said.
She said she is one of six people she went to school with at Zahn’s Corner who have had meningiomas — a condition so rare that only 32,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it each year, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
She said though cancer seems omnipresent, many in her community are also dealing with other chronic health conditions.
“That plant — I’m sorry, but it’s causing a lot of issues,” she said. “And people don’t understand just how much has happened.”
Katlyn Smith’s cancer was discovered after she and her father were horsing around and their hands collided. Her hand swelled up, and the family figured she’d broken a bone. But doctors saw something far more troubling on her MRI. A series of tests ensued, all pointing to one result: Cancer.
Years later, Wayne Smith still remembers his daughter’s face, stunned, silent, in the rear-view mirror as he drove her home after her diagnosis.
Her Make-A-Wish Foundation wish was to meet country singer Luke Bryan. The two struck up a friendship, exchanging calls and texts, with Bryan making sure she had tickets to his shows when he was in Ohio.
Once, she brought her friends and their mothers, and, as usual, Bryan met them all backstage.
“How do you like your seats?” the country star asked.
“Well, Luke,” she said, “they suck.”
Bryan moved them closer to the stage.
She loved to toilet paper people’s houses. Her nurses helped her toilet-paper her cancer doctor’s house.
They had her viewing at the high school gym. The funeral director told him later that 2,500 people attended her viewing and 2,000 came to her funeral.
Wayne Smith said he wants to see the “A-plant” property cleaned up. But he also wants the Department of Energy to make sure the work they are doing doesn’t contaminate the air and water.
“They talk about it being low dose in air monitors, but my thoughts are if a kid is outside playing every day at recess, taking in breaths of air every day from running, taking that small dose in…”
He doesn’t know for sure that it was the radiation that caused the cancer that killed his child. But he can’t risk the possibility that it might take someone else’s, he said.
“Kids shouldn’t be around it,” he said. “To me, enough is enough.”