Friday, September 16, 2011

environmental catastrophe__my dad's body__secondary, collateral damage

I'm sitting with my sick dad, for the nth day in a row.

Two CT scans and a botched spinal tap later and we still have no idea what is causing his debilitating pain and weakness. There may yet be some explanation. But the uncertainty suggests possibilities that are terrifying to consider... 

We live in a part of the country that is “unlike others, where poison bomb ingredients wafted into the air, sank into the soil and leaked in the water for half a century (The Tennessean).” 


I am looking out of the hospital window at the mountain ranges circling Oak Ridge, TN. This is a Manhattan Project town, meaning it was built as part of the super secret effort to develop and deploy the atomic bomb during WWII. After the war, it continued to be a nuclear science, technology, and weapons development hub.

I grew up here. Mostly. There is way too much to say about growing up in town like this... with its laboratories, weapons plants/ national security complex, and strange mix of the international and Appalachian. But one of the things about this place, that keeps jarring me now, as I watch over my unconscious father, is the environmental catastrophe.

There are indications of a link between environmental damage in Oak Ridge and an increased rate of sickness among workers and the general population (see PDF and link below). And it makes sense that there should be a relationship between illness and place, especially in a place where: we routinely dumped or incinerated radioactive contaminants and heavy metals in the 1950s and 60s; where all the local streams are contaminated with mercury, radioactive strontium and tritium, and other waste; where the local flora and fauna show unsafe levels of radiation; and where mercury leaks out of basement walls in buildings at the Y-12 National Security Complex.

Anyone who grew up here: played in these streams and woods, swam in these rivers, caught crayfish just under the signs that warned of mercury poisoning and unsafe biological contamination. And if you happened to be poor and black, your home was nestled right up against the labs and weapons plants, where we still service and store radioactive warheads and materials.

A series of articles in The Tennessean talked about the health impacts of environmental contamination around Oak Ridge. I was unable to find the articles on their website... but I did find a few excerpts:
A mysterious pattern of illnesses -- from immune systems gone haywire to brain malfunctions doctors can't explain -- is emerging around this nation's nuclear weapons plants and research facilities. […]

In 1997, The Tennessean found scores of people suffering a pattern of unexplained illnesses around the Oak Ridge nuclear reservation in East Tennessee. [...]

The illnesses, including tremors, memory loss, debilitating fatigue and an array of breathing, muscular and reproductive problems mirror those found in Oak Ridge.

It is always hard to link any one illness with any general environmental contamination. My father worked for 30 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He took medical retirement a few years ago. He might have had cancer (in remission now) wherever he had worked. He might have developed Parkinson's anyway.   How can we know?

It is very strange to see the world in your sick father's body. But it's hard not to imagine the ecological disasters of militarism and capitalism at work in his flesh right now with his unexplained debilitating weakness and pain.  In the sanitized speech of military-technocracy, perhaps my father is merely secondary, collateral damage.

And this:

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