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Radiation Fallout:
1,000 to 7,500
Affected in U.S.

UE News, December, 1997

Seventeen years ago this month, I wrote a column in the UE NEWS about the death of actor John Wayne. While Wayne and his doctors blamed smoking for his death due to lung cancer, I noted that he and 90 other people who were on the St. George, Utah set of the adventure film "The Conqueror" in 1954 had developed various types of cancer, and many had died. Many believed that radiation from the atomic bomb test "Dirty Harry" conducted at the Las Vegas, Nevada test-site just a few weeks before might have caused or triggered these deaths.

An unusually large number of children in that area of southwestern Utah had developed leukemia and other cancers, many of these fatal, in the decades that followed. The finger of blame pointed to the same bomb tests in Nevada.

In 1982 Congress ordered the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to investigate children’s exposure to fallout radiation from atomic bombs and the radiation’s impact on their health. NCI focused on thyroid cancer among children, since this is a signature disease of fallout exposure. (Radioactive iodine gets into the milk supply and collects in the human thyroid.)

Now, 15 years later, the study is completed. And guess what? They now find that children’s exposure across the U.S. was 10 to 100 times worse than official estimates at the time of the bomb tests.


Children across the U.S. were exposed to an average of two rads of radiation to their thyroids from the 1950s bomb tests. Also, a pattern of exposure hot spots was also identified — children in 24 counties in southwestern Utah, central Idaho, western Montana, Colorado and South Dakota were exposed to nine or more rads of iodine radiation. That was four to 10 times the expected levels.

These high levels in the U.S. West exceed those that Russian children near Chernobyl got after the 1986 accident there.

(One rad is a relatively high level of radiation absorbed by human tissue. Adult U.S. workers are allowed to be exposed to whole body X-radiation of no more than five rads per year, and currently OSHA is considering a lower level of only two to three rads per year.)


Children below five years are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of radiation, both through leukemia cancers of their blood-forming organs and through thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine in their milk.

Nuclear tests produce radioactive iodine as one of their many radioactive by-products. The iodine spreads on dusts and through fallout to grasslands, then the cows eat the grass and concentrate the radioactive chemicals in their milk. When children drink the radioactive milk, the iodine goes directly to the thyroid glands in their necks and is stored there. Every eight days, half of the iodine radiation is deposited in the tissue of the thyroid and cancerous lesions may develop.

The result: NCI scientists now estimate that 10,000 to 25,000 additional thyroid cancer cases, mostly among children, have been caused by radiation from nuclear bomb-testing. Most thyroid cancer victims (about 90 percent) survive, usually by surgical removal of part or all of their thyroid gland, followed by chemotherapy. These victims must take drugs for the rest of their lives to replace the hormones their bodies no longer produce.

About 10 percent of these cancer victims — about 1,000 to 7,500 people — have died or will die over the years due to the fallout from U.S. bomb testing. These are only a small percentage of the roughly 1,000 people who die each year from this cancer. But the crime is that most of these deaths were preventable.


The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission knew the bombs were going to be set off but gave citizens no warning. No precautions were taken even after the tests were announced. Indeed, the AEC kept telling us there was nothing to worry about. Congress at the time, in the grip of the Cold War, backed them up. Today milk from these affected cows would be thrown away until the levels of radiation fell. As a result of the stalling by Congress and the NCI, officials have guaranteed that most of the responsible officials are dead or so elderly to be effectively beyond the reach of the law.

The men and women who are now in their 40s and 50s who grew up in or near the affected Rocky Mountain areas need to have a thyroid exam to look for nodules on the thyroid which may be the first sign of the onset of the disease. (By the way, many persons, particularly many women, commonly have benign nodules on their thyroids.) This is best done by an experienced physician, who can detect these readily by physical examination of the thyroid area, near the "Adam’s apple" region of the neck.

Sen. Tom Harkin — who grew up in a rural Iowa and had to have part of his thyroid gland removed in 1980 — has called for the federal government to pay for medical exams for all adults who may have been exposed during the 1950s to fallout. This would help pay for the costs of the tests; payment should be made for the medical costs for victims of this government malfeasance. Apologies are also in order, although they would not mean much without payment of costs.

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