Final Results of Cerro Grande Fire Risk Assessment Released

* The Risk Assessment Corporation (or RAC) released the results of the Cerro Grande Fire Risk Assessment this week. The Cerro Grande fire burned over 45,000 acres in northern New Mexico in May 2000, including about 7,500 acres of Los Alamos National Laboratory (or LANL) property.

The assessment, which began 18 months ago, found that the estimated risk of cancer from breathing any radioactive or chemical material directly from LANL found in the smoke plume is less than one in ten million. Risk from inhaling radioactive and chemical materials found on vegetation that was burned in the fire, including non-LANL-derived materials, was less than one in one million. Such materials are naturally occurring chemicals and radioactive materials and radioactive fallout produced by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. RAC's report states that any adverse health effects that resulted from breathing the smoke are similar to those found in any typical forest fire.

Also, the assessment found that the cancer risk from exposure to chemical or radioactive material from LANL carried by surface water is less than three in one million. However, if exposure to similar concentrations of LANL-derived materials were to continue for seven years, the amount of time it is estimated it will take for vegetation to return to pre-fire conditions in the area, cancer risk will increase to about 20 in one million.

RAC's report also focused on improving the efficiency and credibility of federal and state agencies involved in future emergency situations, particularly in the calculation and communication of health risks. RAC found that the lack of communication and dissimilar data collection methodology between various agencies proved to be a hindrance as the risk assessment unfolded. Therefore, RAC recommended that the agencies implement a consistent and integrated method for collecting and evaluating data during emergency situations in order to facilitate technically defensible risk-statements made during the next emergency.

In addition, RAC stressed that "In an emergency where the public is placed at risk or there is a potential for risk, the agency perceived by the public as responsible for the risk should not be the initial or primary source for communicating information about that risk." To correct this situation, RAC recommends establishing a central point of communication, in the form of an independent agency, to make raw data available to the public in a timely manner and to help with interpretation of data, if necessary. This independent agency would ease credibility issues that appear during emergencies, such as those during the Cerro Grande fire. During the fire, the public perception was that because LANL was the facility generating the risk, it was difficult to learn the truth from its representatives.

Also, RAC emphasized that the independent agency would continue communication after the emergency. RAC said that communicating risk effectively and efficiently to the public is the underlying goal of such an agency, and that, in order to be effective, tools and methods for such communication must be in place before and after an emergency occurs. As the RAC report says, "The process of fostering trust among all stakeholders must not wane as the memory of an emergency fades away."

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