By Raam Wong, Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer
A second lawsuit has been filed alleging Los Alamos residents were made sick by research performed in the early years of the town's federal nuclear weapons lab.
Cora Medina claims in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that she developed thyroid cancer and asthma as a result of playing in canyons near what today is known as Los Alamos National Laboratory as a girl for much of the 1950s.
“While playing in the canyons, Cora Medina and her friends would jump from barrel to barrel and from canister to canister,” the suit states. “When puddles of water were present in the canyons, Cora Medina and her friends would splash each other with water, which possibly contained radioactive waste.”
The complaint states Medina, who now lives in Alcalde, also drank milk bought from local grocery stores. The milk could have come from cows “which ingested radioactive materials by eating grass and drinking water in the areas surrounding LANL,” the suit states.
The complaint is thought to be the second of its kind. In a similar suit brought last April, the daughter of Lowell Ryman alleged that his 2005 death, at age 63, was the result of multiple myeloma caused by years spent playing in Acid Canyon near LANL as a child in the 1950s.
Michael Howell of Houston is the attorney on both cases. An Albuquerque attorney also involved in the lawsuits did not return calls for comment.
Both complaints names as defendants the Regents of the University of California, which ran the lab until 2006, and The Zia Company, the contractor that performed management, construction and maintenance duties at the lab until 1986. The lab is now run by Los Alamos National Security, a for-profit contractor of which UC is a partner.
UC spokesman Chris Harrington said in a statement: “While it is well known that waste was discharged into Acid Canyon from the beginning of the Manhattan Project and through the mid-1960s, this waste did not pose a risk to human health or safety.”
The spokesman said the lab continuously monitors for all contamination both on and off the lab property.
“All areas are well below the Department of Energy standard for public human health as it relates to radioactivity in soils and air,” Harrington said.
An attorney for Zia did not return a call for comment. A lab spokesman referred questions to Harrington.
In court filings in the ongoing Ryman case, UC acknowledged releasing “nondangerous quantities” of radioactive liquid waste into Acid Canyon during the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, continuing until 1951.
The historic dumping has been well documented and attributed to the lack of environmental safeguards in place at the time.
Higher than average rates of thyroid cancer in Los Alamos County have long been a concern.
A 1996 state Health Department epidemiology study could not explain why Los Alamos County residents developed thyroid cancer at a rate four times higher than the rest of the state between 1988 through 1995.
Last year, the Journal reported that the rate among non-Hispanic white males in Los Alamos County has been falling, and today is below the statewide average.
But the rate among Anglo women was still high: 66 cases per 100,000 residents between 2001 and 2005, compared with an average of 21 cases for all other counties. In real numbers, that's 22 cases among the population of non-Hispanic white women in Los Alamos County.
Health experts have warned against drawing conclusions about the causes.
One reason rates of thyroid cancer — a relatively rare but generally curable disease — could be high is because the highly educated, affluent population in Los Alamos has better-than-average access to medical care, experts say.
Medina says in her complaint that she underwent surgery to remove thyroid cancer shortly after being diagnosed between 1958 and 1960.
But, even as an adult, the complaint states, Medina has had to take thyroid medication and endure pain and suffering as a result of ongoing thyroid treatment.
She also continues to suffer from chronic headaches and asthma that first developed as a child, according to the suit.
The complaint adds that a “close childhood friend” from Los Alamos died of brain cancer in the 1950s.
The suit states that in 1990s Medina was working at a used-car lot when a LANL representative approached her and mentioned that the lab was conducting an investigation into whether lab operations caused health problems.
While Medina maintains that she told the representative of her condition, she later received a package of literature from LANL indicating that her illness was not caused by LANL operations, the suit states. Medina says she no longer has the papers and can't remember who sent them to her.
Among other things Medina is suing for negligence, engaging in dangerous activities and “fraudulent concealment.”