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  • POTW exhibit at WSU through April 5, 2013
  • POTW exhibit in Portland May 3 - June 14, 2013

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Human Health Effects

Radioactive Contaminants of Concern

Radioactive and toxic substances used in the production of plutonium and its resulting waste are dangerous to both Hanford workers and the public. These substances may have been inhaled or ingested through drinking water.

All of the following radioactive contaminants have reached the groundwater at Hanford.

Strontium (Sr-90) is a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 29 years. Sr-90 is a byproduct of the fission of uranium and plutonium in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It is not harmful unless ingested or inhaled. It can bioaccumulate in the bones and bone marrow and replace calcium in the human body, causing bone tumors and blood cell cancers.

Tritium is the only radioactive isotope of hydrogen. It has a half-life of 12 years. As with all ionizing radiation, exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer. About 80 percent of tritium in the environment is from former nuclear weapons production and fallout from past testing. At Hanford, tritium in the groundwater was produced by irradiation of reactor cooling water.

Technetium-99 (Tc-99) is a silver-gray, radioactive metal that is manufactured. It has a half-life of 210,000 years. Technetium-99 has no significant industrial use. It is found primarily in radioactive wastes from former nuclear weapons facilities as a byproduct from the operation of nuclear reactors. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, most Tc-99 in the environment comes from detonation of nuclear weapons (especially atmospheric weapons tests), nuclear reactor airborne emissions, nuclear fuel reprocessing plant emissions, and facilities that treat or store radioactive waste. Ingestion is the primary way people are exposed to Tc-99, either by eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. Exposure to technetium-99 increases the likelihood of developing cancer.

Iodine-129 is a radioactive isotope in spent nuclear fuel and in the waste from operating nuclear reactors and fuel reprocessing plants. Iodine moves through soil to the groundwater and represents one of the largest contaminated groundwater plumes at Hanford. The half-life of iodine-129 is more than 15 million years. When ingested, it is concentrated in the thyroid gland where it may cause cancer in humans.

Carbon 14 is a naturally occurring radioactive isotope of carbon, best known for its use in radiocarbon dating. It has a half-life of 5,700 years and is present in the low-level radioactive wastes at Hanford. Large amounts of carbon 14 were also released to the atmosphere as a result of nuclear weapons testing. It can enter the body through inhalation, contaminated drinking water, or contaminated food. The health hazard of carbon 14 is associated with cell damage caused by the ionizing radiation that results from radioactive decay, with the potential for subsequent cancers.

Uranium is both radioactive and toxic. It is a naturally occurring element that is very dense and heavy. The greatest health risk from large intakes of uranium is toxic damage to the kidneys. Uranium-238 is used to produce plutonium-239, which was the primary mission at Hanford. It is mildly radioactive and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. The U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) only considered the radioactivity of uranium, not its toxicity, in its modeling. Uranium-238 is a primary groundwater contaminant in the 300 Area at Hanford.

WPSR Discussion on Hanford and Human Health Risks

This section provides a detailed discussion of the harms that exposure to radiation and toxic substances can have on humans as well as site specific effects associated with Hanford.

USDOE Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project

Use this interactive map to track the annual air concentration of Iodine-131, a bi-product of nuclear production, since the 1940s. This tool also allows you to view the reach of this air contamination from its creation point in the Richland area to other parts of the state and region.

Studies and Research on Human Health Effects from Hanford

The Washington State Department of Health operated the Hanford Health Information Network until 2000. These sites offer a wide variety of information on health issues related to Hanford and exposure to radioactive chemicals.

Environmental Justice Report by US Department of Energy

This report serves as an evaluation of the potential for low income or minority populations to be adversely affected by storage of tank waste at Hanford.

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