People exposed to above-ground tests seek data

Mon, Aug 4, 1997 (10:16 a.m.)

Downwinders -- people living under radioactive fallout clouds from Nevada nuclear explosions in the 1950s and early '60s -- have called for the National Cancer Institute to release maps and scientific data in an ongoing study of the effects of those blasts.

The NCI said it would release a list of the 24 hardest-hit areas in the nation, places where rain or snow showered people with 10 to 100 times the radioactive iodine-131 once thought. But last week the organization said its data aren't ready.

"We published maps of the fallout that hit upstate New York, St. Louis, Chicago, even Los Angeles nearly two decades ago," said Preston Truman, director of Downwinders, an advocacy group for fallout survivors based in Salt Lake City.

"We could reprint them tomorrow," he said, asking why the NCI and the government won't "fess up to the truth that Utahns have known for so long."

Many residents of Nevada, Utah and Arizona believe their cancers and other diseases were caused by radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear experiments conducted at the Test Site from 1951 until 1962.

In 1983 some downwinders sued the federal government for damages based on the fallout from about 90 atmospheric tests conducted in Nevada. Although they won the case, it was overturned on appeal.

Also, the National Institutes of Medicine will have six months to review whether the fallout may have caused 75,000 thyroid cancers nationwide. The federal action is also in response to last week's study.

Truman said the federal government and its public health agencies knew from the beginning that atmospheric nuclear tests would result in exposures and deaths for thousands of unwitting and trusting Americans.

The NCI summary suggests that from 25,000 to 50,000 additional cases of thyroid disease and 2,500 deaths would be likely in fallout areas as diverse as New Mexico, New York, Massachusetts, Iowa, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

"As the survivors and closest witnesses of those tests, we who have watched our families and friends sicken and die, we've known for 40 years that the government has lied and covered up the shameful truth that fallout was deadly, nationwide and worldwide," Truman said.

Radiation experts had harsher criticism of the NCI report.

A North Dakota zoologist who tracked heavy fallout in the Western states said the NCI study was the same information known for years.

"It's a virtual study, not a real one," using computer models in place of real data gathered by independent as well as government scientists, said Dr. Egbert Pfeiffer, who sampled milk and animal bones after a series of nuclear experiments at the Nevada Test Site in 1957.

"North Dakota milk has the highest (radioactive) contamination in the world," Pfeiffer said in a telephone interview from Missoula, Mont.

North Dakota isn't even mentioned in the NCI summary.

Pfeiffer had requested further radioactive fallout information from the federal government to confirm what he had measured in the field 900 miles away from the Nevada site near Belle Fourche, N.D., and Rapid City, S.D.

But Atomic Energy Commission scientists worried about releasing anything after the two shots, "Diablo" and "Stokes," fired in August 1957. A formerly secret memo discussed withholding information from Pfeiffer "to avoid possible embarrassment" and a final report was never released.

A controversial researcher who has said millions of children have been damaged by nuclear weapons fallout, as well as nuclear reactor releases, echoed Truman's feelings.

"We suspected that the radioactive releases and the contamination of the diet was much greater than the government had announced at the time," said Ernest Sternglass, professor emeritus of health physics at the University of Pittsburgh. "This is now confirmed."

Sternglass lost his government funding after he hammered the then-Atomic Energy Commission for producing enough fallout to lower national intelligence test scores. He remains a voice against further nuclear weapons or nuclear reactor development.

"We must be willing to look at the mistakes we made during the Cold War when it was national policy to keep the public from finding out the true effects of what radiation does," Sternglass said.

Among effects he suspects are caused by radioactive releases worldwide, Sternglass notes low birth weight, immune system suppression, higher infant mortality and higher incidences of thyroid disease.

Infant mortality began to rise in the late 1950s and declined after atmospheric nuclear testing went underground, he said.

Then came Chernobyl. Sternglass and the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York City are collecting baby teeth, looking for strontium-90, a radioactive bone-seeker they expect to find from the nuclear reactor accident in 1986.

So far, the amounts of strontium are 1,000 times higher in German teeth, after the reactor residue came down in rain and snow, he said.


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