By Shelley Nolden, GRYT Chairwoman
Last summer, I visited the Grand Canyon with my family. It was the trip of a lifetime. The sheer magnitude of the canyon, and the power of time that created it, stole my breath and seemingly never returned it. But what amazed me most during that trip were the galaxies, Jupiter’s moons, and nebulas I saw through the telescopes of the gracious astronomers who’d gathered to share their passion with the public at the Grand Canyon Star Party. At the time, I’d thanked my lucky stars that our trip had coincided with this event, held June 9 through June 16, 2018. –Two days before the uranium ore discovered in the Grand Canyon National Park’s museum collectibles building reportedly had been removed.
The Grand Canyon Uranium Exposure Event: Breaking News Reaction
Fast forward to Wednesday, February 20, 2019: I received an urgent-sounding call from my mother, who asked me the dates of my family’s trip last summer, as well as if I’d visited a museum. In the midst of an intensive project at work, my brief answer included a reference to the Star Party timing and spending time at a visitor center — not a museum. Then, I’d returned my attention to my job.
That evening, my husband told me about the breaking news that buckets of uranium had been found at the Grand Canyon Museum Collection storage and research facility in Grand Canyon Village. Frantically, I googled and found mainstream media articles describing three five-gallon buckets of uranium that had been stored in a taxidermy room where park employees worked and groups of children attended thirty-minute presentations. From this initial research of these breaking news stories of the uranium exposure, I learned that the amount of uranium present posed a health risk to nearby adults after just thirty seconds, and for children, safe levels were exceeded after a mere three seconds.
Cancer Anxiety the Size of the Grand Canyon
As the pit in my stomach widened into a canyon, and the urge to vomit rose in my throat, I felt panicked on behalf of the museum staff and the thousands of visitors over almost twenty years, as reported in those articles, who’d been exposed to vast amounts of unsafe radiation. And on behalf of my own two children, nephew, extended family, and myself.
While we had not visited the museum collection building, we certainly had been in the vicinity. In total, we’d spent a full day at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, Mather Point, and the trail edging the south rim that leads to Yavapai Point.
With cancer fears thrumming through my veins, I immediately pulled up my navigation app to determine just how close to the radioactive material we’d been. About two miles, maybe a little less. Also, I didn’t have a sense for where we’d traveled on horseback from the Apache Stables. Too afraid of what I would learn, I did no further research on the topic at that time.
The possible side effects from radiation are terrifying.
For me, the threat of cancer is a tangible fear.
At age 31, I was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia, days after losing the baby girl with whom I’d been pregnant. I spent the next forty days hospitalized, with a portion of that time in the Intensive Care Unit. Eight years later, I am in complete remission, but I still have PTSD.
And anxiety that when provoked can be debilitating.
Although radiation wasn’t included in my treatment plan, I had numerous CT scans. And, somehow, the possibility of a secondary cancer from that radiation exposure has come to be a trigger for my PTSD. To me, it represents all my fears and frustrations related to everything that happened to my body, and the associated feeling of lack of control over it all. To this day, I still feel anxious going through airport security scanners and flying.
So, for someone afraid of receiving even an X-ray, you can imagine how I interpreted those initial mainstream media sound bites. Not only did I feel sick for those who’d been in the building, but I worried that my family, including young children, and I had been too close. That first night, I slept maybe two hours. And, for the four days that followed, thoughts of the Grand Canyon and uranium invaded my life (and happiness) at least once every fifteen minutes. In short, I was freaked out, as well as furious that someone’s carelessness could harm so many people.
Then, on the fifth day, I decided that I couldn’t continue like this: I needed to dig back in to determine the extent of the risk, even if the answer made it impossible for me to convince myself that everyone would be okay.
The Need For Authenticity in Journalism For The Greater Human Good
Along with my husband, who knows all about my issue with anxiety, I re-consulted Google. Quickly, we learned that the uranium was actually “uranium ore,” which is far less radioactive than pure uranium, and that some of the initial news coverage had “misreported the amount of radiation exposure rates as milliR/hr instead of microR/hr, resulting in an overstatement of radiation exposure by a factor of 1000,” as described by Owen Hoffman in a comment to the National Parks Traveler article, “Investigation Launched Into Buckets of Uranium Rock Samples at Grand Canyon National Park.”
The more we looked, the more we found from the scientific community that downplayed the risk. While there is certainly a concern, meriting an investigation that will result in a report stating risk levels for those in close proximity to the uranium ore, it appears that the mainstream media initially over-hyped the news.
Here are some helpful links for anyone who’s visited the Grand Canyon and is now concerned:
These articles were posted the day after the initial news broke. If I’d read them then, I would have saved myself a lot of worry. But, I didn’t. I’m an imperfect human, who knows firsthand the burn of chemotherapy as it courses through the bloodstream.
It is clear that the buckets of uranium ore in the museum collection building were mishandled, and that an investigation is warranted. (I pray to God that the findings will show that those who were in close proximity did not receive unsafe levels of radiation exposure.)
It is also clear to me that the initial alarming headlines and misreports of the radiation exposure rate represented irresponsible reporting. Of course, I have no way of knowing how many of the thousands who have visited the museum collection building and the tens of millions who’ve visited the Grand Canyon over the past two decades panicked as I did when first hearing the news. But I am certain that I wasn’t alone in my fear.
Cancer Anxiety: Help Through Community
Through my experience as the Chairwoman of GRYT Health, I know that anxiety is a very real issue for many cancer survivors. In the GRYT App, an online support community for cancer survivors and caregivers, our most heavily attended live AppChat was about managing anxiety.
The people who’ve visited the Grand Canyon, and specifically the museum collection building are just that — real people, with families and vulnerabilities. I hope that this incident serves as a reminder to the journalism community that while alarming headlines certainly do grab attention, they can also be damaging when the facts behind them aren’t thoroughly vetted.
Later this spring, the precise facts in the case of the uranium ore at the Grand Canyon will come to light. At that time, if there is any evidence that people have been in harm’s way, I hope that the media treats the breaking story with the compassion those affected deserve.
And, for anyone who suffers anxiety from a cancer-related experience, know that you are welcome in our community on the GRYT App. My fears usually aren’t rational — though sometimes they are; secondary cancers are real, chemobrain is a thing and a relapse could happen. I also know that the people on the app know exactly what it’s like to experience these same thoughts. They are an incredible, compassionate, judgment-free support system to fall back on. You can find me there, chatting with others; reiterating I get it, here’s what helped me.