80,000 U.S. Cancers Caused by Bomb Test Fallout – 15,000 of Them Fatal
Critics Call for Public Health Response, Compensation, Radiation Truth Commission
An estimated 80,000 people who were born or lived in the United States in the past 50 years have contracted or will contract cancer because of fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, according to an analysis of government studies. Well over 15,000 of them are estimated to be fatal.
The government exploded 215 A- and H-bombs above ground between 1951 and 1963, half at the Nevada Test Site and the others in the Pacific Islands.
The study, prepared by the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), estimates some of the radiation doses and cancers that resulted from the open-air tests. It is the first study to find that heavy radiation doses contaminated the United States following nuclear explosions outside the country – Soviet tests in Kazakhstan, U.S. and British explosions in the Pacific.
“This report and other official data show that hot spots occurred thousands of miles away from the test sites,” said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). “Hot spots were found as far away as New York and Maine.” The Guardian’s Julian Borger explained that the tests sent plumes of debris into the atmosphere to be blown around the Earth and dumped highly radioactive isotopes in the form of rain.
The CDC investigation was mandated by Congress after a 1997 National Cancer Institute report that dealt only with the iodine-131 in the fallout. That study showed extensive exposures across the country (See Fall 1997 Pathfinder), and found that iodine-131 poisoning caused around 75,000 thyroid cancers, ten percent of which are estimated to have been fatal. It revealed that the bomb tests spread “more than 100 times” the radioactive iodine than the government acknowledged at the time of the tests.
“The 1997 report indicates that some farm children, those who drank goat’s milk in the 1950’s in high fallout areas, were as severely exposed as the worst exposed children after the 1986 Chernobyl [reactor] accident. Such exposure creates a high probability of a variety of illnesses,” said Dr. Makhijani. “Yet the government did nothing to inform the people in these affected areas.”
The CDC report examined 18 additional isotopes that were spewed by the bomb tests, including strontium-90 and cesium-137, which are dangerous for between 280 and 300 years. Moreover, cesium-137 makes up 40 percent of total fallout in a given test. Together, a test’s cesium, zirconium-95, carbon-14 and strontium-90 make up 76 percent of the total radioactive fallout from most tests.
James Glanz in the New York Times reported that these poisons can be carried thousands of miles, “potentially causing leukemia, breast cancer, liver cancer and other types of cancer.”
USA Today said the CDC report found that about 22,000 cancers, half of them fatal – from melanoma to breast cancer – were likely caused by external exposure to the fallout. Thousands of additional cancers were caused by internal exposure, including 550 fatal leukemias and 2,500 thyroid cancer deaths from inhalation or eating contaminated foods.
Those most seriously harmed will have been children and pregnant women. Reuters reported that, “No U.S. resident born after 1951 escaped exposure.” The Guardian says the same, adding, “all organs and tissues of the body have received some radiation exposure.”
The President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments found in 1995 that the government knew “the possibility of external beta burns is quite real,” and “that those injuries would cause a public uproar that would prevent them from using test sites in the U.S.” The Air Force recommended that the weapons test site be located on the East Coast, but the advice was rejected because of cost analysis.
“The message is we are all downwinders,” said Bob Schaeffer of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, who noted that the study was supposed to have been completed by July 2000.
Frustration over the long delay was aggravated by the fact that only an executive summary has been made public. Bill Burton, an aide to Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), said that while the summary was dated August 2001, it was not received by Harkin until this February. Harkin complained that there should be “no more stalling” and urged release of the full study.
In the 1950’s – under threat of a lawsuit by Kodak – the government informed photographic film producers of expected fallout patterns so they could protect their film supply. But did nothing to inform milk producers so that they could protect a vital component of the food supply. (See Winter ’97/’98 Pathfinder.)
“It is late in the day,” said Lisa Ledwidge, a biologist working for IEER. “The government should not only urgently formulate a health and compensation response strategy with public involvement; it should implement it without any further delay.”
“Now is the time for people from nuclear weapons states to call for truth from their governments. Right here in Idaho we know the news is grim. There are hot spots all over the inter-mountain West,” said Margaret Macdonald Stewart, of the Snake River Alliance. “Now,” Steward said, “the job – the government’s job – is to take the news to small towns all over [the country] and help unsuspecting people whose health has been damaged by nuclear weapons.”
“The United States has a compensation program for Nevada Test Site neighbors who are geographical downwinders. But this is clearly not enough,” explained Ms. Ledwidge. “There are hot spots thousands of miles from tests sites and the new definition of ‘downwinder’ should include all of them.”
“The new fallout maps and radiation dose estimates show that nuclear weapons states not only harmed their own people but also people in other countries,” said Dr. Makhijani. “It is high time for the United Nations to create a Global Truth Commission that would examine, in detail comparable to the U.S government studies, the harm that has been inflicted upon the people of the world by nuclear weapons production and testing. Nuclear weapons states owe an honest accounting, treatment, and compensation to the victims of the nuclear age.”
The CDC/NCI progress report, a fact sheet, and official fallout maps are posted on the IEER web site: www.ieer.org . The report and maps are also scheduled to be posted at the Centers for Disease Control’s site: www.cdc.gov .