Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#202 - Trial And Error: A Costly Way To Learn, 09-Oct-1990

Continuing our review of Catherine Caufield's stunning, fact-filled
book, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES, CHRONICLES OF THE RADIATION AGE now available
in paperback. Page numbers in our text refer to pages in the 1989
hardback edition from Harper & Row.

The history of the development of ionizing radiation (X-rays and
radioactivity) reveals many of the same problems we face today:
dangerous technologies are being developed via trial and error, with
humans serving as the test species. For example (pg. 8), in 1896, "The
first systematic practitioner of X-ray therapy was Dr. Leopold Freund
in Vienna, whose first patient was a fiveyear-old girl with a hairy
mole on her back. In December, 1896, she underwent two hours of X-rays
every day for 16 days. After 12 days, the hair on her back began to
fall out, but her whole back became horribly inflamed and took a very
long time to heal. Thereafter Freund limited exposures to 10 minutes.
'This accident,' commented the girl's doctor, dryly, 'was full of
instruction.'" Oops.

From its earliest days, and continuing into the present day, trial-and-
error has been the basic means of development for nuclear technology.
The underwater A-bomb test July 25, 1946 at Bikini atoll gave
unexpected results (pgs. 94-98); it was supposed to show that a fleet
of Navy ships could survive a nearby bombing and could then be boarded
and sailed triumphantly home across the Pacific. Instead, "The test
planners were taken aback. They had not expected such high levels of
radioactivity, though there had been warnings from RadSafe [the
official medical team in charge of troop safety].... The task force now
faced a huge and unexpected job-decontaminating the target fleet [of 84
ships] so it could be reboarded and sailed home. Unfortunately, no one
knew how to clear a ship of radioactivity. In the first days, crews
simply sluiced down the decks of their ships, using radioactive lagoon
water. When that didn't work, they used soap and water. That too
failed, as did every other cleaning agent tried, from lye to
foamite.... After many weeks, it was finally proved that the only
effective decontamination technique was to remove the outer surface of
each ship to a depth of almost half an inch.... Sailors were not issued
proper protective clothing--a garment to cover the entire body and
head, along with goggles, boots, gloves, and filter masks--while
working on contaminated vessels. The first clear order to destroy
severely contaminated clothing was not issued until two weeks after
[the bomb] was exploded. Not until 13 August, almost three weeks after
the blast, were decontamination crews ordered to board the 'change
ship' to shower and change their workclothes before returning to the
ships where they slept and ate.

"The target ships were not the only ones made radioactive by [the
bomb]. The live fleet, the [100] ships on which most of the 42,000
participants were sleeping, showering, and eating, had also become
contaminated, largely as a result of entering the lagoon
prematurely.... Warren [in charge of RadSafe] recommended that all
drinking water should be taken from the ocean, as far as possible away
from the lagoon, but his advice was ignored. The radioactive lagoon
water contaminated the evaporators used to collect it and the pipes
that carried it to the showers and toilets.... Warren's private papers,
which became available after his death in 1982, reveal the severity of
the situation. On 13 August he reported that 'The initial contamination
of surfaces was so great that reduction... of 90 percent or more still
leaves large and dangerous quantities of fission [products] and alpha
emitters scattered about... Contamination of personnel, clothing,
hands, and even food can be demonstrated readily in every ship... in
increasing amounts day by day.'

"By the time the true extent of the live fleet's contamination was
acknowledged, the fleet had already dispersed.... In September, 1946
the Navy decided that every ship that had been at Bikini during or
after the [Abomb] test had to undergo full-scale decontamination... But
the Navy could not afford to have an entire fleet out of action for
months while a way to clean it was sought. 'Consequently,' an official
report stated in September, 1946, 'several APA's, Destroyer Division 72
and some auxiliaries have been cleared practically to meet operational
requirements on the basis that they might continue to operate until
methods of making them safe for overhaul are developed.'" Oops.

In 1953 the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC, a federal agency) set up
offices in the western states of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah to
promote the discovery and mining of uranium. (pg. 75) By this time the
"radiation protection community" [the doctors and others who had
appointed themselves to establish standards for 'safe' levels of
radiation exposure] had officially adopted the position that there is
no truly safe amount of radiation--a viewpoint officially adopted by
the ICRP [International Commission on Radiological Protection] in 1948
(pgs. 73, 77). Their position was crystal clear: Every bit of radiation
carries with it the risk of cancer and of genetic damage that can be
passed on to one's children.

But a 1951 pamphlet published by the AEC makes no mention of radiation
in connection with uranium mining; instead it says, "the radioactivity
contained in rocks is not dangerous to humans unless the rocks are held
in close contact with the skin for very long periods of time." (pg. 81)

Navajo uranium miner Phillip Harrison says, "And when I went to work
[in 1969], I was never told anything inside the mine would be hazardous
to my health later. It really surprised us to find out after so many
years that it would turn out like this, that it would kill a lot of
people. They said nothing about radiation or safety, things like that.
We had no idea at all." He describes his father's death from lung
cancer: "My father, the last year of his life he had greatly suffered;
he had really suffered daily. We gave him pain pills, but the pain just
started mounting and pretty soon the pain pills weren't enough. They
started shooting him with needles, and the needles didn't stop the
pain. I think they die mostly from pain." (pg. 79)

Some 30,000 to 40,000 men mined uranium from the 1950s through the
1970s (pgs. 84, 86). The current estimate is that somewhere between
3000 and 8000 of these men will die from lung cancer as a result of
their exposure to radiation, and thousands more will die of emphysema,
fibrosis and other lung ailments. Oops.

The "developed" nations tested about 500 atomic bombs in the
atmosphere, starting in 1946. Each bomb created massive amounts of
fallout containing strontium90 a highly radioactive element not found
in nature. The human body reacts to strontium-90 as if it were calcium
and stores it in the bones, where calcium is normally stored, and in
many other body tissues. As late as 1953 the AEC's official position on
dangers from strontium-90 was that "the only potential hazard to humans
would be the ingestion of bone splinters [from ground beef made from
cows fed fallout-contaminated grass]...." (pg. 126) What the AEC's
scientists overlooked was that milk from cows would provide a direct
pathway into millions of humans--especially children--even if those
humans never ate any bone splinters whatsoever. Oops.

When a University of Pittsburgh scientist calculated in 1969 that
atomic fallout had killed 400,000 American children, the AEC asked its
own scientists to evaluate the data (pg. 155). The AEC's scientists
concluded that "only" 4,000 American children had been killed by atomic
fallout. Oops.

The AEC did not like this answer. AEC officials tried (unsuccessfully)
to prevent their own scientists from presenting these conclusions at a
meeting of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of
Science. Two weeks after he presented his data, AEC scientist Arthur
Tamplin found his staff cut from 11 to four; within six months, he had
only one assistant remaining and his major responsibilities had been
transferred to other scientists. He had no choice but to quit the
agency and seek work elsewhere (pg. 157).

The history of nuclear development, thoroughly and dispassionately
documented in this book, is a chronicle of errors and misjudgments, of
disregard for scientific evidence and common sense, and, often, of
contempt for common decency itself. Now this industry and its friends
in government plan to experiment on you, to learn what will happen when
"low level" radioactive waste has the name "radioactive" stripped off
and it is renamed "below regulatory concern" (BRC) [see RHWN #183-185].
BRC wastes can now legally be sent to your municipal dump, your
municipal incinerator, and even to your local recycling program, from
whence recycled radioactive metal objects can make their way back into
your home. Oops.

Furthermore, this industry and its friends in government are pressing
forward now with a new plan for burying more than 2000 pounds of
plutonium-239 half a mile below the desert floor in southern New
Mexico. By the government's own estimate, 100 micrograms of plutonium
will kill a human, so the WIPP [Waste Isolation Pilot Plant] site will
contain enough plutonium to kill 10 billion humans--twice earth's
population. Plutonium remains radioactive for 240,000 years. Our
government assures us they can seal the WIPP so it will remain secure
for 250,000 years. And if they are wrong? Oops.

Get: Catherine Caufield, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES, CHRONICLES OF THE
RADIATION AGE (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990). Paperback:
$13.95.

--Peter Montague

=====

Descriptor terms: catherine caufield; radiation; nuclear weapons;
occupational safety and health; atomic energy commission; workers;
race; native people; native americans; children; strontium-90;
plutonium-239; wipp; health;