Full Report of Nuclear Fallout Test Released

By Perkins, Sid | Science News, October 11, 1997 | Go to article overview

Full Report of Nuclear Fallout Test Released


Perkins, Sid, Science News


Everybody got a little, and some got quite a bit--possibly more than was good for them.

On Oct. 1, the National Cancer Institute released the full report on its nationwide study of exposure to atmospheric fallout from 90 above-ground nuclear tests conducted 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Wind and rain deposited the fallout from each of the tests in different areas.

Faye Austin, director of NCI's division of cancer biology in Rockville, Md., says the report shows that everyone in the continental United States was exposed to radioactive iodine-131 for about 2 months following each of the tests. The amount of exposure depended on where people lived and what they ate. Because I-131 accumulates in the thyroid gland, doctors have raised concerns that fallout might pose a threat of thyroid cancer to people exposed to it as children.

Exposure to I-131 came about mainly through drinking milk from cows or goats that had eaten fallout-tainted vegetation. Smaller exposures arose from breathing contaminated air or eating other foods, such as eggs and leafy vegetables, Austin says.

People who drank milk from backyard cows probably received higher doses of radiation than those who drank commercially processed milk. Unprocessed milk was likely to have been consumed more quickly after milking, and half of the radioactivity associated with I-131 disappears every 8 days.

Although NCI's report is the first widely known account of exposure, federal officials suspected as early as 1953 that I-131 could show up in milk products, say Pat Ortmeyer and Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takorna Park, Md. Ortmeyer says the officials also knew details of fallout patterns. After Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., complained to the government in 1951 about radiation-fogged film, the Atomic Energy Commission agreed to provide routine fallout predictions and follow-up information to several film manufacturers.

Ortmeyer and Makhijani found no evidence that the government informed the dairy industry or the public, they report in an article scheduled for publication in the November-December Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. …

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