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#691 - The Major Cause of Cancer--Part 1, 15-Mar-2000

[Rachel's will be published next on April 13.]

When Wilhelm Roentgen first discovered X-rays, in 1895, "doctors
and physicians saw the practical potential of X-rays at once, and
rushed to experiment with them."[1,pg.7] Many physicians built
their own X-ray equipment, with mixed results: some home-brew
X-ray machines produced no radiation whatsoever, others produced
enough to irradiate everyone in the next room.

The ability to see inside the human body for the first time was a
marvelous, mysterious and deeply provocative discovery. Roentgen
trained X-rays on his wife's hand for 15 minutes, producing a
macabre image of the bones of her hand adorned by her wedding
ring. Roentgen's biographer, Otto Glasser, says Mrs. Roentgen
"could hardly believe that this bony hand was her own and
shuddered at the thought that she was seeing her skeleton. To
Mrs. Roentgen, as to many others later, this experience gave a
vague premonition of death," Glasser wrote.[1,pg.4]

Within a year, by 1896, physicians were using X-rays for
diagnosis and as a new way of gathering evidence to protect
themselves against malpractice suits. Almost immediately --during 1895-
96 -- it also became clear that X-rays could cause
serious medical problems. Some physicians received burns that
wouldn't heal, requiring amputation of their fingers. Others
developed fatal cancers.

At that time, antibiotics had not yet been discovered, so
physicians had only a small number of treatments they could offer
their patients; X-rays gave them a range of new procedures that
were very "high tech" -- bordering on the miraculous -- and which
seemed to hold out promise to the sick. Thus the medical world
embraced these mysterious, invisible rays with great enthusiasm.
Understandably, physicians at the time often thought they
observed therapeutic benefits where controlled experiments today
find none.

At that time -- just prior to 1920 -- the editor of AMERICAN
X-RAY JOURNAL said "there are about 100 named diseases that yield
favorably to X-ray treatment." In her informative history of the
Catherine Caufield (see REHW #200, #201, #202), comments on this
period: "Radiation treatment for benign [non-cancer] diseases
became a medical craze that lasted for 40 or more
years."[1,pg.15] "...[L]arge groups of people [were] needlessly
irradiated for such minor problems as ringworm and acne.... Many
women had their ovaries irradiated as a treatment for
depression."[1,pg.15] Such uses of X-rays would today be viewed
as quackery, but many of them were accepted medical practice into
the 1950s. Physicians weren't the only ones enthusiastic about
X-ray therapies. If you get a large enough dose of X-rays your
hair falls out, so "beauty shops installed X-ray equipment to
remove their customers' unwanted facial and body hair," Catherine
Caufield reports.[1,pg.15]

Roentgen's discovery of X-rays in 1895 led directly to Henri
Becquerel's discovery of the radioactivity of uranium in 1896 and
then to the discovery of radium by Marie Curie and her husband
Pierre in 1898, for which Becquerel and the Curies were jointly
awarded the Nobel prize in 1903. (Twenty years later Madame Curie
would die of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.)

Soon radioactive radium was being prescribed by physicians
alongside X-rays. Radium treatments were prescribed for heart
trouble, impotence, ulcers, depression, arthritis, cancer, high
blood pressure, blindness and tuberculosis, among other ailments.
Soon radioactive toothpaste was being marketed, then radioactive
skin cream. In Germany, chocolate bars containing radium were
sold as a "rejuvenator."[1,pg.28] In the U.S, hundreds of
thousands of people began drinking bottled water laced with
radium, as a general elixir known popularly as "liquid sunshine."
As recently as 1952 LIFE magazine wrote about the beneficial
effects of inhaling radioactive radon gas in deep mines. Even
today The Merry Widow Health Mine near Butte, Montana and the
Sunshine Radon Health Mine nearby advertise that visitors to the
mines report multiple benefits from inhaling radioactive
radon,[2] even though numerous studies now indicate that the only
demonstrable health effect of radon gas is lung cancer.

Thus the medical world and popular culture together embraced
X-rays (and other radioactive emanations) as miraculous remedies,
gifts to humanity from the foremost geniuses of an inventive age.

In the popular imagination, these technologies suffered a serious
setback when atomic bombs were detonated over Japan in 1945. Even
though the A-bombs arguably shortened WW II and saved American
lives, John Hersey's description of the human devastation in
HIROSHIMA forever imprinted the mushroom cloud in the popular
mind as an omen of unutterable ruin. Despite substantial efforts
to cast The Bomb in a positive light, radiation technology would
never recover the luster it had gained before WW II.

Seven years after A-bombs were used in war, Dwight Eisenhower set
the U.S. government on a new course, intended to show the world
that nuclear weapons, radioactivity and radiation were not
harbingers of death but were in fact powerful, benign servants
offering almost-limitless benefits to humankind. The "Atoms for
Peace" program was born, explicitly aimed at convincing Americans
and the world that these new technologies were full of hope, and
that nuclear power reactors should be developed with tax dollars
to generate electricity. The promise of this newest technical
advance seemed too good to be true -- electricity "too cheap to

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 created the civilian Atomic Energy
Commission but as a practical matter the nation's top military
commanders maintained close control over the development of all
nuclear technologies.[4]

Thus by a series of historical accidents, all of the major
sources of ionizing radiation fell under the purview of people
and institutions who had no reason to want to explore the early
knowledge that radiation was harmful. In 1927, Hermann J. Muller
had demonstrated that X-rays caused inheritable genetic damage,
and he received a Nobel prize for his efforts. However, he had
performed his experiments on fruit flies and it was easy, or at
least convenient, to dismiss his findings as irrelevant to

In sum, to physicians, radiation seemed a promising new therapy
for treating nearly every ailment under the sun; for the military
and the Joint Commmission on Atomic Energy in Congress it
unleashed hundreds of billions of dollars, a veritable flood of
taxpayer funds, most of which came with almost no oversight
because of official secrecy surrounding weapons development; and
for private-sector government contractors like Union Carbide,
Monsanto Chemical Co., General Electric, Bechtel Corporation,
DuPont, Martin Marietta and others -- it meant an opportunity to
join the elite "military-industrial complex" whose growing
political power President Eisenhower warned against in his final
address to Congress in 1959.

Throughout the 1950s the military detonated A-bombs above-ground
at the Nevada Test Site, showering downwind civilian populations
with radioactivity.[5] At the Hanford Reservation in Washington
state, technicians intentionally released huge clouds of
radioactivity to see what would happen to the human populations
thus exposed. In one Hanford experiment 500,000 Curies of
radioactive iodine were released; iodine collects in the human
thyroid gland. The victims of this experiment, mostly Native
Americans, were not told about it for 45 years.[6,pg.96] American
sailors on ships and soldiers on the ground were exposed to large
doses of radioactivity just to see what would happen to them. The
military brass insisted that being showered with radiation is
harmless. In his autobiography, Karl Z. Morgan, who served as
radiation safety director at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
(Clinton, Tennessee) from 1944 to 1971, recalls that, "The
Veterans Administration seems always on the defensive to make
sure the victims are not compensated."[6,pg.101] Morgan recounts
the story of John D. Smitherman, a Navy man who received large
doses of radiation during A-bomb experiments on Bikini Atoll in
1946. Morgan writes, "The Veterans Administration denied any
connection to radiation exposure until 1988, when it had awarded
his widow benefits. By the time of his death, Smitherman's body
was almost consumed by cancers of the lung, bronchial lymph
nodes, diaphragm, spleen, pancreas, intestines, stomach, liver,
and adrenal glands. In 1989, a year after it had awarded the
benefits, the VA revoked them from Smitherman's widow."[6,pg.101]

Starting in the 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, thousands of
uranium miners were told that breathing radon gas in the uranium
mines of New Mexico was perfectly safe. Only now are the
radon-caused lung cancers being tallied up, as the truth leaks
out 50 years too late.

In retrospect, a kind of nuclear mania swept the industrial
world. What biotechnology and high-tech computers are today,
atomic technology was in the 1950s and early 1960s. Government
contractors spent billions to develop a nuclear-powered airplane
-- even though simple engineering calculations told them early in
the project that such a plane would be too heavy to carry a
useful cargo.[4,pg.204] Monsanto Research Corporation proposed a
plutonium-powered coffee pot that would boil water for 100 years
without a refueling.[4,pg.227] A Boston company proposed
cufflinks made of radioactive uranium for the simple reason that
uranium is heavier than lead and "the unusual weight prevents
cuffs from riding up."[4,pg.227]

In 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission established its Plowshare
Division -- named of course for the Biblical "swords into
plowshares" phrasing in Isaiah (2:4).[4,pg.231] Our government
and its industrial partners were determined to show the world
that this technology was benign, no matter what the facts might
be. On July 14, 1958, Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the
H-bomb, arrived in Alaska to announce Project Chariot, a plan to
carve a new harbor out of the Alaska coast by detonating up to
six H-bombs. After a tremendous political fight -- documented in
Dan O'Neill's book, THE FIRECRACKER BOYS[7] -- the plan was
shelved. Another plan was developed to blast a new canal across
Central America with atomic bombs, simply to give the U.S. some
leverage in negotiating with Panama over control of the Panama
Canal. That plan, too, was scrapped. In 1967, an A-bomb was
detonated underground in New Mexico, to release natural gas
trapped in shale rock formations. Trapped gas was in fact
released, but -- as the project's engineers should have been able
to predict -- the gas turned out to be radioactive so the hole in
the ground was plugged and a bronze plaque in the desert is all
that remains visible of Project Gasbuggy.[4,pg.236]

In sum, according to NEW YORK TIMES columnist H. Peter Metzger,
the Atomic Energy Commission wasted billions of dollars on
"crackpot schemes," all for the purpose of proving that nuclear
technology is beneficial and not in any way harmful.[4,pg.237]

The Plowshare Division may have been a complete failure, but one
lasting result emerged from all these efforts: A powerful culture
of denial sunk deep roots into the heart of scientific and
industrial America.

[To be continued April 13.]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


RADIATION AGE (New York: Harper & Row, 1989). ISBN 0-06-015900-6.

[2] Jim Robbins, "Camping Out in the Merry Widow Mine," HIGH
COUNTRY NEWS Vol. 26, No. 12 (June 27, 1994), pgs. unknown. See
http://www.hcn.org/1994/jun27/dir/reporters.html. And see

[3] Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, THE NUCLEAR POWER
1999). ISBN 0-945257-75-9.

[4] H. Peter Metzger, THE ATOMIC ESTABLISHMENT (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1972). ISBN 671-21351-2.

[5] Michael D'Antonio, ATOMIC HARVEST (New York: Crown
Publishers, 1993). ISBN 0-517-58981-8. And: Chip Ward, Canaries
on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West (New York: Verso, 1999).
ISBN 1859847501.

[6] Karl Z. Morgan and Ken M. Peterson, THE ANGRY GENIE; ONE
MAN'S WALK THROUGH THE NUCLEAR AGE (Norman, Oklahoma: University
of Oklahoma Press, 1999). ISBN 0-8061-3122-5.

[7] Dan O'Neill, THE FIRECRACKER BOYS (New York: St. Martin's
Press, 1994). ISBN 0-312-13416-9.

Descriptor terms: radiation; nuclear weapons; nuclear power;
x-rays; cancer; carcinogens; karl z. morgan; downwinders;
nevada test site; hanford;