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#200 - Sacrificing Citizens, 25-Sep-1990

A most remarkable book has been published, entitled MULTIPLE EXPOSURES,
and subtitled, CHRONICLES OF THE RADIATION AGE, by Catherine Caufield.
As the subtitle implies, it is a history of the development of ionizing
radiation since the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895 and
of natural radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896. The tone of the
book is even-handed, factual and understated. Much of the book is based
on interviews with important U.S. scientists and government officials,
and on official government records. The book does not draw many
conclusions; it tells what happened and what people said. Events are
narrated in a dry, passionless voice, leaving the reader to draw his or
her own conclusions. (In our text, below, page numbers inside
parentheses refer to pages in Ms. Caufield's book.)

In a sense, this is the story of a long trial-and-error process that
extended over a 70-year period as industrialized nations, led by the
U.S., experimented with ionizing radiation and its associated machines
such as X-ray devices, atomic and H-bombs, medical isotopes for
diagnostic and therapeutic use, and nuclear power plants to generate

Sprinkled throughout this 70-year-long story are items of interest to
toxics activists because so much of what's happening today has occurred
before. The chemical industry is younger than the 70-year-old use of
ionizing radiation. Things occurring today in the chemical industry may
seem new to us, but similar things have occurred before.

Here we will emphasize just a few events and offer just a few of the
conclusions that can be drawn from this rich historical record.

X-ray Therapy

From the 1920s to the present, medical doctors have treated more than
100 ailments with X-ray therapy. Large numbers of people with
relatively minor problems such as ringworm and acne have been subjected
to high doses of powerful X-rays. Birthmarks, bursitis, and sinusitis
have been treated by X-rays. Many women have had their ovaries
irradiated as a treatment for depression. Excessive bleeding during
menstruation has sometimes been treated by irradiating the uterus.."

All across the U.S. in the '20s and '30s, entrepreneurs started
installing X-ray machines and irradiating the public. Beauty shops
started using Xrays to remove unwanted facial and body hair: hit with
enough ionizing radiation, hair falls out. The biggest operation was
the Tricho Institute, founded by Albert Geyser, a New York physician.
Geyser leased X-ray machines to beauty parlors and offered two-week
training courses. Two physicians gave this summary of Tricho's results
in 1947:

"As the years passed, cases of radiodermatitis [skin ailments due to
radiation], horrible burns, painful ulcerations, and cancer resulting
from the Tricho system of treatment were observed by dermatologists in
all sections of the country... the number of cases of x-ray burns,
cancer and death resulting from the treatments administered by the
Tricho Institute must have run into the thousands. It is impossible to
obtain or estimate the actual number because the cases were not
recorded." (pg. 16)

Between 1947 and 1960, doctors irradiated the scalps of 10,000 children
in Israel, and an equal number in New York City, who were infected with
ringworm. The idea was to irradiate the children until their hair fell
out, so the ringworm could be treated more efficiently. (pg. 141)

Studies published in 1974 and 1977 showed that these children had six
times as much thyroid cancer as a control group, as well as an
excessive number of brain cancers and leukemias.

Throughout the '70s, other studies showed that people exposed to X-rays
for back ailments had a leukemia death rate 10 times higher than normal
and a lung cancer rate twice normal. Women sterilized by radiation to
curb menstrual bleeding were the subject of five separate studies; all
five found excessive leukemias, as well as an unusually high incidence
of cancer of the intestines and other organs that had been
inadvertently irradiated during treatment.

As recently as 1973, a survey of dermatologists in the U.S. revealed
that 44% still used X-rays at least once a week to treat conditions
such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, and disfiguring scar tissue.

The conclusions to be drawn?

1: The medical community has been slow to catch on to the dangers of
ionizing radiation. Suggestions of danger have been met with
skepticism, indifference, hostility and ridicule by medical scientists
and practitioners.

2: Publicity by newspapers, not action by government officials, has
been the usual means for curbing excessive and dangerous exposures to
radiation. For example, the Tricho Institute's operation was shut down
by adverse publicity, not by government action.

3: The regulatory system has lagged behind the problems by years, and
there is substantial evidence that the system is lagging behind the
available evidence today. People who want to protect themselves and
their children cannot rely solely on regulatory officials to do their
thinking for them.

4: A lot of people have to be hurt before regulators begin to regulate.
The rule has been consistent: Until there are a large number of
victims, every new technology is assumed safe. In fact, Lauriston
Taylor, the head of the National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP)
[the agency then responsible for setting radiation standards within the
U.S.] in 1948 said it explicitly: "I see no alternative but to assume
that the operation is safe until it is proven to be unsafe. It is
recognized that in order to demonstrate an unsafe condition you may
have to sacrifice someone. This does not seem fair on the one hand, yet
I see no alternative. You certainly cannot penalize research and
industry merely on the suspicion of someone who doesn't know, by
assuming that all installations are unsafe until proven safe." (pg. 67)

Radioactive Fallout from Bombs

Operation Crossroads involved two A-bomb explosions on Bikini atoll in
the South Pacific, one in the air (July 1, 1946) and one under the sea
(July 25, 1946). Quite unexpectedly, the undersea explosion heavily
contaminated all the U.S. Navy ships carrying more than 40,000 troops
participating in the operation. In 1948 David Bradley, a U.S. Army
doctor who had participated in Crossroads, published his diary of what
he had seen and experienced at Bikini, under the title No Place to
Hide. The book stayed on the Best Seller list for 10 weeks and began to
give radiation a bad name.

Advocates of nuclear weapons were alarmed at the impact Bradley's book
had on the public. They developed a public relations counter-attack
with three main themes: (a) radiation is natural; (b) the public is
protected from it by high safety standards administered by well-trained
scientists; and (c) fear of radiation is more dangerous than radiation
itself. (pg. 102). The campaign continued for several years; in 1950
our government published the first nuclear-age civil defense manual,
called How to Survive the Atomic Bomb. The author, Richard Gerstell
(another Crossroads participant), told his readers, "You can easily
protect yourself" from radiation, and he said that "much of the danger
from radioactivity is mental." Gerstell concluded that radiation is
"much the same as sunlight," that in ordinary doses it presents no
danger, and that the experts have things under control. (pg. 103)

President Eisenhower himself encouraged the Atomic Energy Commission
(AEC) to exploit the public's ignorance on atomic matters. After
meeting with Eisenhower on May 27, 1953, to discuss the problem of bad
publicity from radioactive fallout, AEC chairman Gordon Dean, wrote in
his diary, "The President says 'Keep them confused as to fission and
fusion.'" (pg. 118)

[To be continued.]

RADIATION AGE (NY: Harper & Row, 1989).

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: catherine caufield; radiation; exposure; x-ray
therapy; nuclear weapons; health effects; skin disorders;
radiodermatitis; children; childhood cancer; thyroid cancer; brain
cancer; leukemia; studies; reproductive disorders; intestinal cancer;
ethics; national coalition on radiation protection; nuclear weapons;
richard gerstell; federal;