Downwinder Stories

Government documents released during the 1980s following Freedom of Information Act requests contributed to a growing awareness and understanding of the amounts and types of radiation released from the Hanford site during its early years. The availability of this data has resulted in a number of scientific studies of the health of those living downwind from Hanford: the so called Downwinders. The stories of five downwinders are included below. These are first person accounts and reflections of living in the shadow of radiation exposure from the Hanford site.

Anecdotal evidence of historical events like these stories can be tricky. Read through the To Start You Thinking questions and keep them in mind as you study each story.

I was born in "the sacrifice zone," i.e., downwind from the Hanford Atomic Works, in 1949. The town my family lived in until 1957 was Albion, Washington.

Albion was a wonderful place to be a child. Little did we know what simply living downwind from Hanford was doing to our health.

There were only dirt roads in Albion, then, so every car that came through town would kick-up a dose of dust. We kids would play for hours in the fields around Albion, where the grass that the cows and goats would later eat grew. The cows and goats would consume radioactive iodine-131 that had settled on the grass. The radioactive iodine-131 would then be passed on to us children through their milk, concentrating in our developing thyroid glands. Playing in the fields we would be exposed to the radioactive iodine-131 pre-goat or cow. Farmers plowing nearby would raise even more dust that we would breathe, inhaling even more radioactive iodine-131 and other contaminants that had settled from the upwind Hanford Atomic Works.

Among my playmates as a child in Albion were my cousins, Jerry and Karen, both long dead. Karen died of leukemia at the age of 15, and Jerry died of a brain tumor when he was only 32. My family often wondered why Jerry and Karen had died at such early ages, and now we have a pretty good idea why...

Governmental spending of millions of dollars on studies while downwinders drop like flies without so much as an apology, much less well-deserved compensation, gives new meaning to the term "Studying it to death."

from Steve Wagner, Statement to the Hanford Environmental Effects Subcommittee, Kennewick, Washington, January 26, 2001

video from Interview - Trisha Pritikin - Hanford Downwinder - Part I, YouTube, January 6, 2011,


I grew up in Colfax, a small farming community in Eastern Washington, and have terminal metastasized thyroid cancer as a result.

Until my early sixties, I didn’t know I was a victim of World War II. In retrospect, it seems the United States fought a dual war—using the atomic bomb against foreign enemies and harming its own people in the manufacturing of the bomb. The winds carried lethal emissions from the Hanford Nuclear Plant depositing them on the land, in the water and upon the people. Those of us who were affected are called “downwinders.”

image and narrative from Shannon Rhodes, Shannon Rhodes: Artist & Author

video from Interview - LaVerne Kautz - Hanford Downwinder, YouTube, January 16, 2011,

Do you remember your childhood? Think back your first memory as a child. Let me share with you my first childhood memory.

It was 1949 and I was two years old. I heard someone screaming. I went to the bathroom and opened the door. A woman was on the bathtub, crying for help. There was blood on the floor around her, and I saw something like a baby at her feet covered with blood. I ran away.

My next first memory is many hospital visits and surgeries, being paralyzed and in iron lung. Then, starting school with crutches and braces, and with sores all over my body, my teeth rotting out. My hair fell out twice. Waiting for the births of cows and sheep, praying that they would not be deformed. The animals born on the farm were so deformed -- cows with two heads, 6 or 7 feet, some without eyeballs and so on.

Riding the school bus for two hours on the way back home, wind blew so hard with thick white dust. Sometimes, our bus had to stop to wait until the wind died down. The bus driver told us to cover our mouth with wet towel so that we could breathe.

Many singing birds were dead and hanging upside down on a telephone wire. Not only little birds, but eagles, hawks were dying, too. I saw coyotes, dogs and other wild animals with their hair falling out. Jackrabbits had big water blister on their stomach and dead, bleeding from their nose and rectum.

My other first memories was the people who came to our farm. They wore beards and thick glasses. They wanted the feet and heads of dead ducks and geese we had hunted. They wanted milk from the cows and wanted water from our wells. Sometimes they came in suits looking like a spacemen. They took samples of our garden vegetables -- cucumbers, potatoes, carrots. They said, "We are from the government and we are here to protect you".

Government people came to our school and had us drink thick white liquid looking like milkshake, but it was not sweet. From the first to fifth grade, they very frequently came to our school and checked us with whole body counter, after we drank the white liquid. They told us to write down everything we ate for breakfast and give it to our teacher.

These were some of my childhood memories. Are yours like mine? Probably not.

In 1986, our government admitted that they deliberately released massive amount of radiation into the air, water and our food, and made a conscious decision to keep it secret from all of us. The largest deliberate release was done in 1949. This was an experiment, called "Green Run". It was around at the same time the woman in the bathroom, who was a nurse in our family, lost her baby.

The government people always treated us different. Hanford people did not want us to play with their children. They were rich and clean kids, while we were poor, dirty and stinky. They didn't allow our milk or cheese to go Richland, the town where Hanford scientists and workers lived. They watched us, monitored us, and tested us. They even made tags for us kids with each of our names and ID numbers, saying that we were like soldiers ready to fight another war against Russia, just like we fought against Japanese. Every week, we had "duck and cover" exercise at school. As I grew older, I realized It was a bizarre idea that we would be safe by this "duck and cover".

At hospitals, they told me, "You are special". There were always two doctors for me, one of whom spoke German. I have gone through 5 major surgeries, including the one to fix my deformed legs, and the other to remove polyp inside my nose. Iodine 131 released from Hanford hurt the bodies of children. Already, 50 % of my classmates have died, while their parents are alive.

In 1946, the first baby my mother had was stillborn. The baby was deformed. I was her second child. All my grandparents died of cancer. My father died of liver cancer, my mother had cancer and both of my sisters had cancer.

Out of 100 calves born in a pasture in 1963, 60 were so grossly deformed. They couldn't walk, some with no legs or too many legs. The mother had to squat down on the calves to feed them milk. At night, coyotes came to our farm, chased and killed them to eat. Finally, we took a bunch of them on a truck to be cut up for veal.

Then in 1984, we found that all of the 27 households in the neighborhood had their family members suffer from various cancers, birth defects, thyroid problems and so on. The reality sunk in. Hanford really did poison us and released radiation. The fact was confirmed by the government documents declassified in 1986, in which the government admitted that they deliberately did it and hid the fact.

This simply means that the plutonium for Nagasaki A-bomb was made in Hanford, and in the process, Hanford made American Hibakusha just like Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Around 1991, about 5000 downwinders filed a lawsuit against the contractors of Hanford, demanding compensation. We lost in the first court, and the case is now in the court of appeals.

We Hanford Hibakushha have had lot of difficulty in struggling for justice and compensation from the Government. They always denied our claims. We received many death threats -- anytime you question authority, this was the consequence you had to suffer. But I will continue to question. Until the Hibakusha achieve justice, I will remain killed.

Tom Baille, comments from "Closing Plenary", 2001 World Conference against A & H Bombs, as found at

To Start You Thinking

1) Is the story believable? Identify any parts of the story you do not believe.

2) What general conclusions do you draw from the story? Explain how you think the evidence presented justifies your conclusion.

3) How common do you think this story is?

4) Comment on the logic of this argument:

I think that you are the cause of the problems in the neighborhood. We never had any problems before you moved in.

Explain how the logic relates to the story and any conclusions you draw.

5) What is the value of the story?

Last modified in August, 2019 by Rick Thomas