Rocky Flats Downwinder: My Downwinder Scar/Scare

Rocky Flats Downwinder: My Downwinder Scar/Scare

Technology has forever changed our role as patient. Google searches make physician ‘diagnosis’, patient Q&A blogs, and medical dictionaries available at the touch of a button. This allows a common computer user to become an instant expert. We as a culture have a tendency, a natural inclination to diagnose ourselves. Simply put, if you are sick, Google becomes your friend. If you are ill and stuck on a couch, you have some time. If you have computer and if you have some time with the amazing when the internet works you can find some really game changers. If you are trying to figure what is wrong with you, besides symptoms, it is common to consider causation, including the role of the environment in the search. It is necessary to consider where one lived growing up, that is where Google steps in and bridges the gap, completes the puzzle.
Nearly two years ago, as I lie on a couch in the dark basement of my Denver home, suffering from myriad aliments, some more visible than others, I had the “AH HA “ moment a la Google search that forever altered my life. After plugging in every symptom I’ve suffered along the way coupled with the magic word ‘causes’ I found out with little effort on my part, that a quarter of a century earlier, I grew up literally a hop, skip and jump downwind from a Nuclear Bomb Factory.
Saying that out loud sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it, straight out of a movie reminiscent of Julia Roberts, perhaps it even sounds delusional. I sometime wish it was just a delusion. But, it is, unfortunately true. I, in fact, grew up only 3.75 miles directly downwind from Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, a United States Nuclear Weapons plant near Arvada Coloardo. Two thing happened in 1989 that alternated the trajectory of my life. First, my parents divorced about a 27 year marriage. Second, Rocky Flats was raided for environmental crimes by the FBI. These two thing sent me and my family away from the neighborhood. Looking back, we never talked about Rocky Flats growing up even though my father had been a contractor at the Plant, even though my brother had for a summer dug trenches at the plant, even though the plant lit up the skyline outside my bedroom window for 10 years, no talked about Rocky.
How does that happen? A loss of memory, repression, denial? But among a whole family, a whole generation? Collective forgetting? 25 years pass and, no recollection, not a second thought, Rocky Flats was a language I had forgotten, a place, I literally forgot existed until that moment. A bomb factory was my closest neighbor and I didn’t know until a quarter of century after I moved away.
I was in a panic over my discovery, am in a panic still. Recovered memories of Rocky Flats that came slamming back to my brain that hazy, cold January day in 2014 continue to haunt me, new memories arise, glimpses of forgotten places appear as I relearn a more accurate portrayal of my childhood. I reached out to family, my mom, my brother. My questions caught them off guard, I could tell by their tone. They each stumbled to recollect, in their mind, make sense, since it seemed it was a case of collective amnesia, shared forgetting. To add to the anxiety this AH HA moment was the poorly timed discovery that my brother was suffering electrical heart problems and I had a tumor on my ovary.
I think a lot about sickness now. As I talk to neighbors hear their stories. Thinking back, I was sick a lot growing up near Rocky Flats. My mom reiterated this, my newly recovered memory of child illness was accurate. I was in the hospital a lot those years, with what I now recognize as probably radiation positioning and I had a tumor removed from my thyroid (what I have since learned is called a downwinder scar). Yet, no one really thought about Rocky Flats not then, not now, if it weren’t for the way the Google search came back the ‘secret’ could still be an unknown to me.
Thankfully the internet not only led me to rediscover Rocky Flats for myself, it has allowed me to reach out to former neighbors and inquire about their stories, their memories of Rocky Flats and ultimately their health. I have only just started my search for former Rocky Flats Downwinders but what I continue to discover is horrifying, shocking and unbelievable. I now know, my family wasn’t the only one to experience illness and loss. Nearly every call I have made, every email I have sent to former friends, ex-boyfriends, and neighbors has revealed a horrific, shared commonality, one that has included sickness and death, anger and loss.
The guilt has set in for me. I cannot and will not sit back passively and hear another story of a sick and dying former neighbor and do nothing. I left my neighborhood in 1990 and never looked back until 25 years later. What I discovered in 2014 when I reach out was a lot of hazy memories, half truths, forgotten stories and many, many suffering neighbors. What about the ones I haven’t heard from? Where are the children of Rock Flats?
I am concerned that the dialog about Rocky Flats has focused solely on the technical side of things, soil samples, PU levels, and water monitors. I desperately want to bring this important discussion back to the people. This is a Colorado issue, it is part of our past and we must care for our citizens. I want to connect with universities, scientists and medical professionals in order to approach this terrible tragedy from a community, interdisciplinary approach. I believe restorative justice coupled with a community outreach we can right this wrong. was created to connect former Rocky Flats residents so we can organize a community based health study and begin to advocate for ourselves. A community health survey is a vital first step towards implementation of further medical monitoring for Rocky Flats Downwinders. We deserve to the right have medical monitoring!
Tiffany Hansen, M.A. is a Rocky Flats Downwinder, Colorado Native and former sex therapist turned activist for Rocky Flats Downwinders. She is the founder of the Rocky Flats Downwinders Coalition, a collage artist, and educator speaking to Colorado residents about the Nuclear Legacy of Rocky Flats. Tiffany believes that knowledge is power and residents should be informed about where they live! See for more information. Question or Comments Email Tiffany at