Childhood Cancer Awareness, Rocketdyne and the Santa Susana Field Lab

Rocketdyne | September 23, 2015 | By

“Piece of pie, right Jess Musz?”
“No, daddy! Piece of cake!”

Those were the last words I said to my dad before they wheeled me in for surgery. Diagnosed at age four with Thyroid Cancer, I would spend the next two years in and out of the hospital, fighting for my life and coming very close to dying on the operating room table. 

Jessica Gesell

This is me at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA sometime between 1984-1986

Last night, NBC4 in Los Angeles revealed shocking new evidence of the nuclear meltdown that occurred at Rocketdyne’s Santa Susana Field Lab. A few months ago, I spent the day with Joel Grover and Matthew Glasser of NBC answering questions about my recurring battles with cancer and learning startling new details from them regarding the recklessness of the government in the hills above my home, the meltdown, and the subsequent cover up that has had such an impact on my life.

“Living near ‘the hill’ has caused many Simi Valley residents to live a life filled with chronic illness and the belief that Rocketdyne’s nuclear meltdown caused it.” -Michael Collins, T Zone, Los Angeles Magazine

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My mom visiting me after one of seven surgeries

On a hot July night in 1959, a government sanctioned nuclear reactor had begun to meltdown at Rocketdyne’s 2,668 acre Santa Susana Field Laboratory. The purpose of this laboratory site was to develop nuclear reactors and test rockets for the government.  As a result of the meltdown, residents of Simi Valley and Chatsworth were exposed through the groundwater to approximately one million gallons of trichloroethylene (TCE) as well as 10,000 curies of radioactive iodine.

My parent's lived in a trailer in the parking lot just so they could be close to me.

My parent’s lived in a trailer in the parking lot just so they could be close to me.

John Pace, a former field lab employee, remembers opening the doors to a damaged reactor and allowing radioactive gas out into the night. The radioactive gasses registered off the charts and in order to maintain safe levels within the reactor; the employees were instructed by their bosses to vent the reactor, releasing the poisonous gasses out over the peacefully sleeping suburbs of Simi Valley, Chatsworth, and the surrounding areas.  Worse still, many of these employees had families in those communities, and were still sworn to secrecy and forced to comply.  

In 1997, I was involved in a class action lawsuit against Boeing North American, Raytheon Company and various other entities who had owned and operated the Santa Susana Field Lab at one time. With over 300 members in the class action and with the powerhouse team of Masry & Vititoe (sound familiar? Same law firm that made the town of Hinkley famous with a lawsuit against PG&E with Erin Brockovich) representing us; we felt confident that a successful outcome for us would follow.

We were so wrong.

On June 29, 1999, our case was barred by the statute of limitations. The court held that, based on the facts as alleged in the complaint along with newspaper articles submitted by the defendants about the Rocketdyne facilities dating back to the early 80’s, our claim should have been brought forward before 1997. Our next step was to appeal to the Supreme Court, which also denied us.  I wish that the cancerous cells in my body caused by their actions had that same statute of limitations.  

First visit home from the hospital with my tracheostomy

First visit home from the hospital with my tracheostomy

In 2003, at the age of 23, while planning my wedding, I had a recurrence of Thyroid Cancer which resulted in another two rounds of I131 ablation (Radioactive Iodine Therapy).   This treatment involved injecting me with Radioactive Iodine (the irony is not lost on me) and keeping me in complete isolation from any living person for 5 days.  It was not a fun time.  Finally, in 2006, I was finally cleared to start a family. My husband and I were overjoyed with the arrival of two perfectly healthy baby girls in 2007 and 2009. After enjoying their first few years, we started talking about having a third.  I had always wanted a big family and my husband came from a family of three with both a brother and a sister.  With two girls already, I’m pretty sure he was praying for a little boy to help balance out some of the excess estrogen which will one day dominate our house during the teenage years. 

But then the bleeding started. After three months of intense bleeding and hormone therapy, my OB/GYN recommended an ablation of my uterus. The procedure was schedule for St. Patrick’s Day 2012. An ablation meant that the dream of having anymore children would be no more. We had exhausted our options and it was the only choice we had. It took me years to get over the fact that I would not have any more children.

The ablation worked for a little over two years. In September of 2014, I almost bled out on a plane coming home from Florida and had to have an emergency hysterectomy. You can read more about this post here. The end result was a diagnosis of Endometrial Stromal Sarcoma. One of the most rare forms of uterine cancer with only a handful of specialists in the world familiar with it and qualified to treat it. 

Yes, I’ve battled cancer my entire life. 

Rocketdyne scrapbook filled with hundreds of news articles that I've been saving for years.

Rocketdyne scrapbook filled with hundreds of news articles that I’ve been saving for years.

One of the first questions my doctor, Dr. Barbara Lippe, asked my mother when we met at UCLA was, “When was your child exposed to high levels of radiation?” 

“In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completed a $40 million soil test of the site and found 423 hot spots — places contaminated with high levels of man-made radiation.” – NBCLA  

Do I think there is a link between Rocketdyne’s nuclear meltdown and my health history? You bet I do.  And what upsets me even more, is that despite the fact that this meltdown has been proven, and that the facts state that there are in fact radioactive materials present in the area, the government has still not admitted there was any radioactive material released.  Worse yet, there has never been any cleanup.  Just a cover up.  

The affected individuals of Simi Valley and surrounding areas are asking for Boeing and the government to accept fault and clean-up the SSFL site from radioactive contaminants. KB Homes is currently building a new community of single family homes in the Runkle Canyon area of Simi Valley. Soil and water at this site was reported contaminated and deemed unsafe for the development of homes. 

In the U.S., 15,780 children under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer every year and approximately 1/4 of them will not survive the disease. How can we expect to leave a world behind that is safe for future generations if we don’t take the right steps to ensure their safety today?   Dear Mr. Government, you’ve won.  The statute of limitations has run out.  You are no longer on the hook for the incalculable cost of the lives you’ve ruined.  You won’t be responsible for the past, present, or future medical bills of the people poisoned by your waste.  The least you can do, is admit the mistakes made by those who held your jobs before you and to help us begin to repair.  Help us clean up the mess from this fallout. 

My daughters are the most important people in the entire world to me. I will do anything I can to teach them to be leaders, with a voice. To stand for what is right and to lend a helping hand to humankind.  The leaders of our government agencies that covered this up should be ashamed of themselves.

The scars that streak my body from countless surgeries could have all been avoided had proper measures been taken to keep the citizens of our city safe. Proper steps taken by our city, state and government officials could have kept this all from happening, or at the very least, helped to limit the fallout and mitigate the damage and destruction to the lives of the surrounding communities. 

While watching the NBC4 report  last night, tears streamed down my face and rage shook my body. It has not been an easy ride these 32 years since my initial diagnosis. I am blessed with a truly incredible husband, two HEALTHY daughters and a fire inside me for justice. 

Please read the NBC report, share this information with your friends, family and officials. The only way to make a difference, is to unite and have our collective voice heard.  

Jessica Gesell is the founder of Mommy Bistro, an online food and parenting blog. She resides in Ventura County.

Jessica Gesell is the founder of Mommy Bistro, an online food and parenting blog. She resides in Ventura County.

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Thank you to NBC4 Los Angeles, The Simi Valley Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine and many other news outlets for always covering our story. 

Comments

  1. Leave a Reply

    Cheryl Carrillo
    September 23, 2015

    We, my family have lived in Simi Valley, since 1979. Unfortunately we lived in the East end, between Kuehner and Yosemite. We observed the many rocket firings from Rockeydyne and saw the fire and smoke from them. My daughter, who is now 48, but at 35 had cervical cancer, then at 45 breast cancer. No one in our family had had either disease before. Then in 2007, after trying to get pregnant for 10 years, my daughter-in-law got pregnant. My son and daughter-in-law bought our house in 1995, but had lived with us their entire married life, which now is 20 years in the same house. The little girl that was born was born with trisomy 18 and passed away at home at 8 days of life. Another of my daughters suffered several miscarriages. Just wanted to let you know our history.

    • Leave a Reply

      Ayn
      September 26, 2015

      I am so sorry. I grew up in Reseda and Sepulveda. Who do we need to contact for action on this? The governor? Have u considered a change.org petition? It makes it a lot easier for people to follow through and take action.

  2. Leave a Reply

    Kathy Rappaport
    September 23, 2015

    Thank you for your reports and for telling your story. I am sorry for the continuing battle you face regularly.

  3. Leave a Reply

    mikie kinnaman
    September 23, 2015

    I was raised in Canoga Park and raised my family in Simi.. I have just gone thru my second bout with breast cancer. I know of many cases of women raised there as well dealing with it too. I always knew they had covered up but I am so thankful finally Rocketydyne will be exposed for what they have done to so many of us…

  4. Leave a Reply

    Chelsea
    September 23, 2015

    Thanks for sharing your story. I watched NBC’s videos on their LA’s Nuclear Secret website. My son was actually playing on the playground when they filmed the playground segment in the Part 2 video. They came several months ago to ask if they could film the kids on the playground. Boy, have they been working on this story for awhile. And I’m happy to see it aired. I hope it generates more people to jump to action. Thanks again for sharing.

  5. Leave a Reply

    Nicholas Szegedi
    September 23, 2015

    I understand and share her anger and frustration. I feel the pain and the horror of helplessness. You see, Jessica Gesell is my daughter.
    PBS showed a documentary on a very similar situation on the east coast. The name of the program is, “Rescuing the River: The Raritan”. I encourage everybody to watch this documentary even though the result is devastating and conclusion is what my daughter said, “Dear Mr. Government, you’ve won. The statute of limitations has run out. You are no longer on the hook for the incalculable cost of the lives you’ve ruined. You won’t be responsible for the past, present, or future medical bills of the people poisoned by your waste. The least you can do, is admit the mistakes made by those who held your jobs before you and to help us begin to repair. Help us clean up the mess from this fallout.”

  6. Leave a Reply

    Allyson Verity
    September 23, 2015

    You are a brave warrior… You are so amazing for taking a stand and making sure that they take ownership of their horrific mistakes… We are all so proud of you!! ❤️

  7. Leave a Reply

    Carri B
    September 24, 2015

    You’re one strong woman, Jess, and you’re setting such an awesome example for your girls. Keep up the amazing fight! We’re all standing behind you!

  8. Leave a Reply

    Mindy
    September 24, 2015

    You are such a strong woman Jessica! I never knew about you having to go through any of this!! You are so strong! You always have a smile on your face! I’m so sorry you have had to endure all of this! You are in my prayers! 😙

  9. Leave a Reply

    Jenny howard
    September 25, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your story. I too can relate. We grew up on the east side of simi from 1983 to 1989. My little sister battled breast cancer at the age of 18 and cervical cancer eventually took away her uterus. I battled uterine cancer as well and had a hysterectomy in my early 30s. So many other health issues, none of which run on either side of our family. Its a shame that nothing is being done about this. We are victims of a cover up, and we have zero recourse. Its a shame… and we live in fear about what’s going to happen to our bodies next, if we will live to see our children grow up. We didnt deserve any of this.

  10. Leave a Reply

    Stephanie V.
    September 26, 2015

    My family, as well, was impacted by this cover up. My mom and dad moved to the Agoura/Oak Park border in the late 70’s. No one told them about Rocketdyne. Both my sister and I have fought thyroid cancer (no family history). My sister’s cancer was caught early because of my history, but unfortunately my cancer was more aggressive, in my lymph nodes, and I never received a clear even after surgery and that horrible radiation treatment. I know several other people I grew up with that have thyroid, among other, cancers. No one talks about our side of the hill much, except whispers, so I am thrilled this topic is finally getting the attention it deserves. You are not alone.

  11. Leave a Reply

    Tony G
    September 30, 2015

    My grandpa bought a house in 64 off goshen st, my mom 2 uncles and an aunt were all raised in that are there whole lives.In the mid 90’s My grandfather was diagnosed with prostate cancer and beat it, a few years later with colon. Thank god it was caught early enough both times. This year my moms best friend who was raised on almar st and still lives in the same house who is now 53 was diagnosed with breast cancer. There are too many people from such a small area catching cancer. Something has to be done.

  12. Leave a Reply

    Jennifer Diello
    December 21, 2016

    Is anyone aware of a group or organization keeping track of cancer related illnesses due to Rocketdyne fall out? I believe my family may be part of a cluster.

    • Leave a Reply

      Mommy Bistro
      February 1, 2017

      Hi Jennifer,

      Denise Duffield is the Associate Director of the Physicians for Social Responsibility. She can be reached at 213-689-9170 ext. 1100. She is a wealth of knowledge on the current status with the field lab. Hope this helps!

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