2015-10-30 / Front Page

Questions remain about potential health risks

Despite numerous cancer cases among residents living near the Santa Susana Field Lab, determining a definitive link proves to be difficult
By Melissa Simon


UNRESOLVED—Ralph Powell of Simi Valley works security at Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Lab in the mid-1960s. Area IV was the site of a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, before Powell took the job. Powell, now 87, still wonders whether his work there had anything to do with the 1967 death of his son Michael, who died at the age of 11 after a two-year battle with leukemia. 
Courtesy of Ralph Powell UNRESOLVED—Ralph Powell of Simi Valley works security at Area IV of the Santa Susana Field Lab in the mid-1960s. Area IV was the site of a partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, before Powell took the job. Powell, now 87, still wonders whether his work there had anything to do with the 1967 death of his son Michael, who died at the age of 11 after a two-year battle with leukemia. Courtesy of Ralph Powell Part three of a three-part series

Contamination left over from decades of nuclear testing at the Santa Susana Field Lab has been pegged by many as the source of cancers and other health issues in the area, but not all are convinced there’s a connection.

Between 1988 and 2002, Hal Morgenstern, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan, conducted a number of health studies to see if there was a link between chemical or radioactive contamination at the field lab and deaths caused by leukemia, lymphoma and other cancers.


KEEP OUT—An old sign warns unauthorized personnel to avoid entering a hazardous waste area at the Santa Susana Field Lab. 
FILE PHOTO KEEP OUT—An old sign warns unauthorized personnel to avoid entering a hazardous waste area at the Santa Susana Field Lab. FILE PHOTO Results of the studies showed that those living within two miles of the 2,850-acre property in the southern hills of Simi Valley were at least 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with certain cancers than those living more than five miles away from the field lab.

But that doesn’t mean the site’s contamination is the cause, Morgenstern said.

“The problem is we don’t know exactly why people who live closer have higher rates of cancers,” he said. “It may not have been because of anything going on at (SSFL).”

It could be that residents living close to the field lab happen to have higher personal health risk factors for certain cancers, he said.

Despite all the data he collected, Morgenstern said, there wasn’t enough to identify an explicit link between cancer and the contamination. The results were inconclusive as to whether activities at the lab specifically affected or will affect cancer incidences, he said.

DOUBLE SURVIVOR—A young Jessica Gesell, accompanied by a nurse at the hospital, keeps her spirits up while fighting follicular thyroid cancer in the mid-1980s. Courtesy of Jessica GesellDOUBLE SURVIVOR—A young Jessica Gesell, accompanied by a nurse at the hospital, keeps her spirits up while fighting follicular thyroid cancer in the mid-1980s. Courtesy of Jessica GesellClose to home

Ralph Powell, 87, is among the numerous residents who wonder whether decades of activity at the field lab has caused some 890 cancer cases within a two-mile radius from 1988 to 2002, per Morgenstern’s studies.

During the same time period, surrounding Ventura and Los Angeles counties documented about 540,000 cancer cases.

From 1962 to 1969 Powell worked security in Area IV of the field lab, which now belongs to Boeing. When he took the job, the Simi Valley resident said, he was unaware that a partial nuclear meltdown had occurred there in 1959.

Powell said he watched 55-gallon barrels full of hazardous waste being devoured in burn pits, releasing clouds of “who knows what” into the air and down into the Simi and San Fernando valleys.

Jessica Gesell today, after beating both the thyroid cancer and a 2014 diagnosis of endometrial stromal sarcoma, a rare uterine cancer.Photos courtesy of Jessica Gesell Jessica Gesell today, after beating both the thyroid cancer and a 2014 diagnosis of endometrial stromal sarcoma, a rare uterine cancer.Photos courtesy of Jessica Gesell “I really didn’t know what was going on up there . . . because everything was top secret,” he told the Simi Valley Acorn. “No one ever said if the waste from the reactors was contaminated, but something gave all those workers cancer.”

Over the years, Powell said, most of his co-workers have died from some form of the disease.

But the hardest loss by far, he said, was that of his 11-year-old son, Michael, who died in 1967 after a two-year battle with leukemia.

“I asked (other former SSFL workers) . . . if there was a possibility I tracked in radiation and was told there was a good chance,” he said. “It’s been a burden on me all these years that maybe I caused Michael’s death.

“If I hadn’t been working there, maybe he’d be alive today. But I’ll never know.”

Growing up unaware


Another Simi Valley resident, Jessica Gesell, was 4 years old in 1984 when she was diagnosed with follicular thyroid cancer.

Besides undergoing I-31 ablation, a form of radiation therapy, she also received a thyroidectomy and lymph node removal. The doctor who treated Gesell told her parents the only explanation was radiation exposure.

“My mother drank the water while she was pregnant with me,” Gesell told the Acorn. “I played in my backyard in the soil. I ran around and breathed the air.”

After beating the disease and spending 20 years cancer-free, she was diagnosed in 2014 with endometrial stromal sarcoma, a very rare uterine cancer that causes tumors and affects 120 people worldwide each year. Gesell beat the disease in September.

While she doesn’t blame Boeing for her health issues, Gesell said, she wants the company to take responsibility for its portion of the field lab, which also includes part of Area I and all of Area III.

“(Boeing) wasn’t the owner of the field lab at the time—Rocketdyne was . . . but they knew about what happened. They knew about the repercussions of the choices Rocketdyne made and they still bought the land,” Gesell said.

“There was a nuclear meltdown and (Rocketdyne) released contaminants at night while people were sleeping, and it makes me angry it happened without even thinking about human life.”

New to the scene

While Gesell is certain she was the victim of radiation exposure, another Simi Valley resident, Lauren Hammersley, said she is still researching the source of her 4-year-old daughter Hazel’s illness.

THE FAMILY THAT FIGHTS TOGETHER—Aaron and Lauren Hammersley and their daughter Hazel about two years ago. Hazel, now 4, is cancer-free after being diagnosed in 2013 with high-risk neuroblastoma, an extremely rare cancer that affects the nervous system. The Hammersleys question whether their proximity to the field lab had anything to do with their daughter’s illness. Courtesy of Lauren HammersleyTHE FAMILY THAT FIGHTS TOGETHER—Aaron and Lauren Hammersley and their daughter Hazel about two years ago. Hazel, now 4, is cancer-free after being diagnosed in 2013 with high-risk neuroblastoma, an extremely rare cancer that affects the nervous system. The Hammersleys question whether their proximity to the field lab had anything to do with their daughter’s illness. Courtesy of Lauren Hammersley

In 2013, when she was 2, Hazel was diagnosed with stage three high-risk neuroblastoma, an extremely rare cancer that affects the nervous system.

After six rounds of chemotherapy and other treatment, the girl is now in remission.

But Hammersley still wonders whether her daughter’s case was connected to the field lab.

One in 285 children, or fewer than 1 percent, are diagnosed with cancer nationally, according to the American Childhood Cancer Organization.

But while Hazel was being treated at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Hammersley said, she bonded with 10 families, at least seven of which lived within 10 miles of the field lab.

“(My husband and I) want to see if there’s a correlation between our child’s cancer and this contamination,” Hammersley said. “If there is, we want to help hold the powers that be responsible for cleaning it up and protecting it for future generations. We don’t want anybody else to suffer the pain and agony we’ve gone through.”

Today’s risk

With numerous cancer cases among residents living near the field lab, many activists lobbying for cleanup continue to cite Morgenstern’s studies, which looked at cancer cases in Ventura and Los Angeles counties between 1988 and 2002.

Morgenstern told the Acorn that he and his team hypothesized that those living closer to the site had a higher risk for certain cancers. However, he could never “actually measure individuals” and could only consider their proximity to the field lab. 

“It’s a real challenge because when people are exposed to a . . . toxic agent, cancer could occur a decade later,” he said. 

Dan Hirsch, president of the environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap, asserts that “staggering estimates” of cancer risks still remain at SSFL. 

“By Boeing’s own estimates of their portion of the site, the total estimated lifetime cancer risk from contamination is three of every 10 people exposed, or 30 percent,” Hirsch said of a series of 10 health reports published by Boeing this year. “Estimates are usually one or a few in 10,000, but I’ve never seen numbers that high.”

Morgenstern said he doesn’t know for sure whether possible cancer effects have declined over the years.

“For all I know, there might’ve been greater exposure and the contamination might’ve continued to drift further away from (SSFL), affecting more people. I don’t know,” he said.

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