Bomb Tests and Thyroid Cancer - Screening Program Not Recommended

Journal of Environmental Health, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Bomb Tests and Thyroid Cancer - Screening Program Not Recommended


During the 1950s and 1960s, nearly 100 atmospheric nuclear bomb tests were conducted at a test site northwest of Las Vegas. One of the radioactive elements in the fallout from the tests was iodine-131, which concentrates in the thyroid gland when ingested or inhaled and has been linked to thyroid cancer. Approximately 160 million people living throughout the United States during the bomb tests might have been exposed to varying levels of iodine-131 for about two months following each test. Iodine-131 has a radioactive half-life of only about eight days, however, and the risk of harmful exposure decreased rapidly after each bomb test. Some people inhaled the radioactive iodine, but most were exposed indirectly by .consuming milk from cows or goats that grazed on contaminated pasture land.

Estimates of radiation exposure were based on factors such as people's age at the time of the tests, place of residence, and foods consumed (particularly milk). Evidence suggests that childhood exposure to radioactive iodine - especially before the age of 10 years - can increase the risk that a person will develop thyroid cancer at some point. Children who drank milk produced by cows or goats on family farms may have received higher-than-average exposure. This milk would have contained more iodine-131 than was present in commercially distributed milk, because it typically was consumed shortly after production, and the radioactive iodine had little time to decay. People who were teenagers or adults when the bomb tests were conducted, or who did not drink milk, are at very little risk of developing thyroid cancer from exposure to the fallout.

A report issued by committees of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and the National Research Council (NRC) argues that the government should not sponsor national or regional thyroid cancer screening, despite the fact that exposure to radioactive iodine has increased the risk for some Americans. …

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