On its surface, Kristen Iversen’s childhood in suburban Denver was idyllic. She and her three younger siblings had horses to ride, a local lake and a neighborhood filled with kids.

But just under the surface lurked dangers that Iversen doesn’t fully understand until she is much older. Her Scandinavian parents believe in a stiff upper lip. They rarely acknowledge Iversen’s father’s alcoholism, even after he flips the family car on the way to a horse show. Only after years of chronic pain does Iversen discover the incident broke her neck: Her parents never took her to a doctor after the wreck.

Perhaps even more sinister than the Iversen clan’s demons is the threat just upwind from their home: Rocky Flats. Most local families believe Rocky Flats is a factory for household cleaning supplies. The truth is that Rocky Flats is a U.S. Department of Energy facility churning out plutonium “pits” for the thousands of nuclear weapons assembled during the Cold War.

Even a tiny speck of plutonium ingested in a human body can lead to cancer, immune disorders and other long-term health problems. Unbeknownst to those who live downwind from Rocky Flats (and, indeed, to many of the thousands of Rocky Flats employees), the plant is careless in both producing the plutonium pits and handling the resulting radioactive waste. Thousands of leaking barrels of waste seep into the soil and drinking water. Regular fires at the plant—some intentional—release plutonium particles and other toxic material into the air. Yet from the 1950s through the 1970s, public health officials insist Denver and surrounding communities are safe, even as children and adults in Iversen’s neighborhood develop testicular cancer, brain tumors and other health issues.

With meticulous reporting and a clear eye for details, Iversen has crafted a chilling, brilliantly written cautionary tale about the dangers of blind trust. Through interviews, sifting through thousands of records (some remain sealed) and even a stint as a Rocky Flats receptionist, she uncovers decades of governmental deception. Full Body Burden is both an engrossing memoir and a powerful piece of investigative journalism.

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