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Study: Fallout fell far from Nev. test site

Author: Peter Eisler and Steve Sternberg
Publication: USA Today
Document Dated: July 25, 1997
Date Posted: July 25, 1997


WASHINGTON - Forty years after the government's atomic bomb tests spewed radiation into the Nevada skies, a new federal study will pinpoint communties as far away as New York where people were exposed to potentially dangerous fallout.

The still-unreleased study, the most far-reaching of its kind, shows county-by-county exposure to iodine 131, the predominant radioactive isotope that rained down on the USA in the 1950s.

What the study doesn't help answer is how much of a health risk exposure to iodine 131 posed. But researchers do know that no study in the United States, despite the claims made by the people who lived near the test site, has demonstrated a conclusive link between iodine 131 and cancer.

The study by the National Cancer Institute is not scheduled to be released until late September. On Thursday, NCI officials would not name the approximately two dozen counties where residents had the most exposure to iodine 131.

Scientists who have seen the report told USA TODAY that some of the counties are in the heart of the farm belt; others are in the Rocky Mountain states and upstate New York.

NCI officials said the study shows that people in the most-affected counties absorbed as much iodine 131 as the so-called "down-winders": the people in Nevada, Utah and Arizona who lived immediately adjacent to the Nevada Test Site and have blamed the atomic tests for cancers, birth defects and mental retardation. They have not been able scientifically to document those claims.

Even before its release, the handling of the study has caused political controversy, with some claiming the government has taken far too long to release its sensitive findings.

Among them: The NCI study shows that under today's federal limits, people in every county in the nation were exposed to too much iodine 131 in the 1950s.

"The study indicates that the entire population at that time received some level of exposure," said Bruce Wachholz, who headed up the study. "We found areas in the country where the fallout and the (radioiodine) doses were higher than anywhere else. We don't know what those relationships are (to cancer) at this point."

"The basic question is whether iodine 131 causes thyroid cancer - that's what counts," added Merril Eisenbud, retired professor at New York University Medical Center and one of the nation's authorities on atomic fallout. "Whether it causes cancer in humans has never been decided for certain."

Those uncertainties were behind Congress' demand in 1982 for the NCI study. Now, 15 years later, the resulting 100,000-page report only goes half way.

The study details how much radioiodine Americans living in each of the nation's-then 3,071 counties absorbed when above-ground nuclear tests were conducted between 1951 and 1962. It does not measure whether people nationwide got sick.

Mysteries of atomic fallout

Ever since the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, researchers have been trying to measure what happens when atoms shatter with explosive force, and how the resulting gales of radiation and fallout affect those who survive.

In essence, the NCI study is a first step in solving one of the most daunting medical mysteries of the nuclear age: Did the radioactive fallout from the Nevada bomb tests cause an increase of cancer among people who were exposed?

The significance of the NCI study is not the finding that iodine 131 traveled across the country; that's been known for years. But this will be the first time anyone has determined where it landed and the degree to which people were exposed.

The study determines exposure by examining milk consumption. Much of the iodine 131 traveled through the atmosphere and rained on the grass. It then was eaten by cows and goats and concentrated in their milk.

Therefore, many of the people who were exposed to the most iodine 131 were the most vulnerable: children.

"This is a crucial step in understanding the impact of the nuclear weapons tests on public health," Wachholz said.

But some say it's taken far too long, and already there are charges that the study's authors, afraid of the public's reaction, sat on completed data for several years.

"We are profoundly troubled by NCI's handling of this important study," said a letter issued Wednesday by Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Military Production Network, a coalition of nuclear watchdog groups. "NCI officials have failed to release the material in their possession that would allow the public, health experts, policymakers and the media to begin assessing the impacts of these exposures."

Wachholz said it simply took researchers a lot of time to interpret the voluminous material, draw conclusions and summarize findings.

Effects of fallout often subtle

Researchers know that in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, the gamma rays and neutrons that explode from an atomic fireball cause acute radiation sickness, burns, cancer, cataracts and some other diseases.

Unlike fallout, these rays cover a relatively limited distance. Their impact is dramatic and often immediate.

The effects of fallout, however, can be more subtle. Fallout rides prevailing winds and can cover much of a continent. And fallout carries iodine 131, which naturally concentrates in the human thyroid gland.

The thyroid uses iodine to make thyroxine and other hormones that regulate metabolism. Children who do not get enough iodine may not grow normally or fully develop mentally. Adults develop goiters: enlarged, overworked glands struggling to meet the body's demand for thyroid hormones.

The cancer-causing potential of radioactive iodine 131 remains a mystery.

Studies done so far have been tantalizing and frustrating in equal measure. Most of the studies in the United States have focused on the downwinders.

In the most recent study, published in Journal of the American Medical Association in 1993, researchers found 19 thyroid abnormalities among downwinders, eight of them cancerous. Perhaps six are thought to be linked to the nuclear tests.

All of the volunteers, examined when they were age 9 to 19, were young children when the nuclear tests were conducted. Researchers focused on children because the rapidly dividing cells in their growing thyroids appear to be most susceptible to cancer-causing contaminents. Some got extremely high doses of radiation.

Seventy-three percent of the children were exposed by drinking contaminated milk. Those who drank milk from family cows and goats got the most intensive exposure, because the radioactive iodine had less time to decay during transport.

Still, because there were so few cases of cancer, David Becker, professor of radiology at New York Hospital/Cornell University Medical Center, calls the association between iodine 131 and thyroid cancer "weak."

Other studies have been equally unenlightening, including those of Marshall Islanders who developed thyroid diseases after being exposed to fallout during nuclear tests in 1954. Researchers were stymied because the fallout contained several radioactive isotopes of iodine - not just 131.

And researchers studying the health effects of the radioactive iodine that spewed from the Hanford, Wash., nuclear weapons facility from 1944 to 1957 - exposing thousands of people in Washington, Idaho and Oregon - still have not completed their work. This study is to be done next summer.

The 1986 meltdown of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, presents a more dramatic and tragic picture, for reasons researchers do not entirely understand.

Here the link between iodine 131 and thyroid cancer seemed obvious: More than 500 children have come down with the disease. Researchers are still trying to pin down the cancer-causing isotope and dose.

Study became political issue

Despite researchers' inability to draw any firm conclusions from the new fallout study, it carries profound implications.

The study first became a political hot potato more than a year ago, when an advisory panel from the Centers for Disease Control requested a copy and was rebuffed. Some members of the advisory panel subsequently complained publicly that the institute was trying to supress the data.

"To be sitting on this information, which shows where people are at risk, and to not be sharing that information with public health officials and others in a position . . . to mitigate those risks is unconscionable," says Tim Connor of the Energy Research Foundation and a member of the panel.

The coming release of the study also has been the subject of high-level discussions at the U.S. Department of Energy, which will have to formulate an official response to it.

Given the agency's recent promises of more openness and accountability - promises that followed revelations that the U.S. government spent decades performing radiation tests on unwitting human subjects - many watchdog groups are eager to see what form that response takes.

Most scientists agree that the next step is to try to get a better handle on what connection, if any, exists between iodine 131 and thyroid cancer, and many activists already are calling for studies of the counties identified in the NCI report.

"The whole population . . . that was young or in utero for that period through 1962 needs to be studied," says Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "This issue is going to go on for a very, very long time."

By Peter Eisler and Steve Sternberg, USA TODAY


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