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Rosalie Bertell
NUCLEAR FIGHTER: Dr. Rosalie Bertell maintains the nuclear industry and military policy makers are the world's main polluters.

Anti-nuclear nun

Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a Grey Nun for half a century, is an internationally recognized expert in the field of radiation

By Donna Jean MacKinnon
Toronto Star Staff Reporter
May 3, 1998

Dr. Rosalie Bertell perches on a wooden chair in her small Harbourfront apartment. Animated, her eyes bright, she has a no-nonsense look on her face.

Bertell has been a Grey Nun for 50 years and, along the way, earned a doctorate in biometry and written books about radiation and its effect on the health of humanity and Planet Earth. No Immediate Danger: Prognosis For A Radioactive Earth has been translated into four languages and is about to come out in Russian.

Bertell, an environmental epidemiologist, is neither a recluse nor a denizen of the Ivory Tower. She is an activist and a self-confessed whistle blower.

After the Bhopal disaster in 1984, Bertell directed the International Medical Commission investigating the effects of the Union Carbide chemical spill that contributed to some 15,000 deaths.

After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 resulted in 31 dead and forced the evacuation of 135,000, Bertell helped convene a tribunal to fight for the rights of those victims.

She has written reports on everything from radiation-related health problems, experienced by the Rongelap people after bomb testing in the Marshall Islands, to the effects of the Pickering nuclear plant on the health of local children.

In 1990, Bertell took on Ontario Hydro when it published ``slick'' booklets outlining a 25-year plan with no mention of potential health problems.

``We challenged them and ended up producing five volumes on what they should have known,'' says Bertell.

The ``we'' are Bertell and the 300 members of the International Institute of Concern for Public Health, a hard-hitting environmental organization formed in 1984.

Bertell, who retired ``in theory'' in 1994, is currently president of the institute where her mission is to integrate influential people, with environmental concerns, into a cohesive force so that they can lobby governments as a block.

``I'm connected to the world by E-mail and carry stories from one international group to another,'' explains Bertell, as the fax machine trills in her tiny office.

At 69, Bertell has a few pet peeves. She laments that once air and water are polluted, no one has a choice in the matter. She also objects to medical testing of vaccines only on the ``standard Caucasian man, 20 to 30,'' rather than a broad spectrum of people. Bertell also has a few things to say about El Nino.

``It's the military who have messed up our weather and ozone,'' she maintains. ``They blamed it on Mt. Pinatubo and now El Nino. Where did that come from all of a sudden? Everybody repeats El Nino and accepts it. It's public relations: not scientific data.''

Bertell admits she is a feminist who believes that if women had more decision-making power, the world would be a better place. At the 1995 Forum on Women in Beijing, Bertell alerted delegates to the dangers of military-developed chemicals and their long-term impact on life.

She identified clorines as the worst offenders on the planet. Developed during World War I, chlorine did not exist in the atmosphere until then. Now there is evidence that one class of chlorines has ``demasculinized and defeminized'' birds and fish, and Bertell warns that studies on the implications for human sexuality and reproduction have just begun.

Bertell is routinely called a Cassandra and denounced by the nuclear industry. But she firmly maintains they and military policy makers are the world's main polluters.

Becoming a thorn-in-the-side of power mongers wasn't an easy path for Bertell. She was born in Buffalo, the daughter of a Canadian mother and American father. Paul Bertell was president of the Standard Mirror Co. and the inventor of the day-night auto mirror.

``My father never finished high school, but taught himself optics,'' says Bertell. ``Later he delighted in my success in math and everything I did.''

After Bertell earned a B.A. in 1951 from Buffalo's Marguerite D'Youville College in Buffalo (named for the only Canadian-born saint), she joined the Carmelites and stayed until a heart attack, five years later, forced her to leave.

``We plowed by hand and did hard physical work - laid cement and threaded pipes four feet underground. I learned a lot about women's self-sufficiency. But I was also a worry wart,'' she admits.

During her convalescence, Bertell discovered a knack for mathematics and later earned a degree in that subject. Then in 1957, at 29, Bertell joined the Grey Nuns.

``The religious life was right for me. My family has a long Christian history. I'm named after a great aunt who was a Daughter of Charity and a pharmacist.''

Her religious commitment, Bertell adds, is like a marriage: Sometimes there are interpersonal problems, but they get worked out.

Although a high-profile public figure, Bertell has never forsaken her order and like all nuns, her earnings go to a community pot - the Mother House - which doles out living expenses.

In the '60s, Bertell attended the Catholic University of America in Washington and graduated with a Doctorate in Biometry - the science of biological measurement. ``In those days it was a new field and there were 320 openings for every graduate. It was later filled up by areospace people when factories closed down.''

Bertell landed a research job in Buffalo at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the world's first cancer research facility. While at the Roswell, Bertell also taught math at D'Youville College.

Drained by her dual workload, Bertell suffered a second heart attack in 1972 and while recuperating, she ``stumbled'' on to Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb data.

``I spent 10 years in radiation data and emerged as the foremost expert in the field,'' says Bertell.

A public meeting in Buffalo became a watershed in Bertell's life. Niagara County wanted to build a nuclear plant on a site next door to farms producing Gerber's Baby Food and people were concerned.

Bertell recalls her first experience with nuclear power: ``There were only seats on stage for the five nuclear men. Their message was that radiation was like an x-ray and, obviously, caused no harm. It all irked me. I was the first citizen up to the mike and I insisted the nuclear men give up their seats. I didn't realize the concerned citizens were all women until we replaced the men.''

In the end, the female protesters succeeded in getting a moratorium on the plant - the first one in the United States against the nuclear industry.

``Soon I was caught in the anti-nuclear network and, because I had a data base of medical information, I was constantly asked to speak,'' Bertell says. ``I began to realize it was routine for the military to release radiation and that it also set radiation standards.''

Meanwhile, ``tension was high'' at the Roswell Institute, which ``favoured'' the nuclear industry because it supplied research dollars.

``Scientists are economic prisoners. I was told what I could say, so I quit,'' says Bertell, with the air of someone who has just licked the school bully.

After dropping out in June, 1975, Bertell went to a Carmelite Monastery in Vermont and spent a year in contemplative prayer and considering her activism.

``There was no spiritual resistance. So I accepted, it was a calling and the crusade was on,'' explains Bertell.

With intellectual sword in hand, Bertell faced her first windmill, when she testified before the U.S. Congress on the subject of medical x-rays, and succeeded in stopping x-rays in shoe stores and annual medical x-rays in schools and at work.

Since then Bertell has endured a breakneck schedule. (``People find me. I never advertise.'') Recent speaking engagements included a conference on low-level radiation exposure in Milan, a session of the United Nations in Geneva and the World Conference on Breast Cancer in Kingston, Ont.

In January, Bertell travelled to a meeting of scientists in Brussels where she advised on protecting workers against ionizing radiation. She also spoke at the European Parliament in a bid to help Europe set up radiation protection standards for workers.

In February, Bertell completed a ``reconstruction'' for workers affected after three nuclear bombs were tested in Alaska. Bertell's model will help the men, exposed to radiation, get help with medical expenses from the U.S. government.

Bertell currently serves on the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission Nuclear Task Force and is an adviser to Health Canada on the state of the Great Lakes. She has also worked on the relationship between diabetes, cancer and leukemia and radiation. And Bertell has a thought-provoking view of obesity.

``It's not just junk food. It's well-known that radioactive iodine in North American's atmosphere slows down the thyroid gland and that contributes to (being) overweight.''

Bertell declares it's all about money. ``War and money make the world go around. When you have money, you have to be prepared to go to war to protect it and that is the main concern of corporations and governments.''

This may sound cynical coming from a nun, but Bertell snaps, ``Once your eyes are open, you can't close them again.''

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