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A Small Error in the Assumptions

MY OWN INVOLVEMENT in the subject of fallout hazards began in 1961. That was the year of the Berlin crisis, when the Soviet Union ended the voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing and the U.S. government called for a large-scale fallout shelter construction program. The intensified threat of nuclear war caused much concern in the scientific community, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a group called the Federation of American Scientists, of which I was a member, decided to participate in a study of the chances for survival of a large industrial city like Pittsburgh in the event of a nuclear war. Since I was professionally involved in research on new techniques for reducing the radiation dose from medical X-rays, and therefore was interested in the problem of low-level radiation effects, it was suggested that I join the section investigating the health hazards from fallout.

Almost as soon as we had begun our work, a disturbing fact emerged. All the calculations made by government agencies as to the radiation protection necessary after a full-scale nuclear war were based on the assumption that the adult could tolerate the enormous dose of 200 rads spread over a few days and as much as 1000 rads over a year. Apparently it had been decided by the government's scientific advisory groups that it was not necessary to take into account the long-range after-effects of radiation, either on the survivors themselves or on their offspring. Yet, as I well knew from my own research, the reason why so much effort was being spent to reduce the dose from medical X-rays was that the doses of only a few rads per year received by radiologists in the course of their work had been found to decrease their life spans significantly, while among their children there had been a definite increase in congenital defects. Furthermore, if Dr. Stewart was correct, only 1 to 2 rads would double the chances of a child developing cancer when the radiation was received in the last few months of the mother's pregnancy, and only one-tenth of this amount might have the same effect when received in the first few months. Exposed to the radiation levels that would be present in the aftermath of a nuclear war, then, a great many children born in the years following could be expected to die of leukemia, cancer, or congenital malformations before reaching maturity.

Additionally, these doses of hundreds of rads that the government agencies considered tolerable were only estimates of the external doses from the fallout in the environment. The internal doses from the fallout particles concentrated inside the body, which would be hundreds or thousands of times higher still, had not even been taken into account, although the knowledge necessary for calculating these internal doses was widely available.

It thus appeared that the chances for survival after a nuclear war were being presented to the public in a far more optimistic light than scientific evidence justified. And then, with the publication in 1962 of Lapp's article in Science, revealing the extremely high internal doses received by the children of Albany-Troy from the 1953 rainout, it became evident that the same held true for the health effects of peacetime fallout. Since by 1962 the intensive nuclear testing was filling the rains all over the world with radioactivity approaching the amounts that had descended on Troy, the number of children that could be expected to die as a result was very large.

I made an estimate as follows: According to figures presented at congressional hearings, the fallout from each 100 megatons[1] of hydrogen bombs tested would give an overall dose of from 200 to 400 millirads to every man, woman, and child in Europe, North America, and Asia. This was approximately the total megatonnage of the bombs already exploded in the latest test series as of the end of 1962, and 200 to 400 millirads was roughly equivalent to the dose from a pelvic X-ray. Thus, if there were indeed no difference in the effects of diagnostic X-rays and fallout, one could expect as much as a 20 percent increase in cancer rates for those children born within a year after the recent tests. Since, at the time, about one child in a thousand normally died of cancer before reaching adolescence, and since four million children were born in the United States each year, then every year some 4000 children normally developed cancer. Therefore, a 20 percent increase would mean close to 800 additional deaths in the United States alone. For the rest of the world, the figure would be perhaps ten times larger, all as a result of only the most recent atmospheric tests.

And these figures did not even take into account the probability of much larger doses from local rainouts, where the fallout was brought down in concentrated form. In the case of Troy, the type of calculations made by Lapp indicated that an overall dose of anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand millirads must have been received by the unborn children in the area, equivalent to a whole series of pelvic X-rays. Depending on whether they were in an early or late stage of development at the time, their chances of developing cancer would have been increased 100 percent or more.

Thus it was clearly of the greatest importance to see whether the number of leukemia deaths among the children of Troy had in fact begun to increase a few years after the fallout arrived. (A characteristic delay in the onset of the disease, when radiation was the cause, had been found by both Dr. Stewart and Dr. MacMahon and was also observed among the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who began developing this fatal form of cancer some three to five years after their exposure.) Furthermore, it seemed imperative that the worldwide scientific community be made aware of the implications of the data of Stewart and MacMahon, and of the urgent need for large-scale statistical studies of populations exposed to fallout. Accordingly, by late fall 1962, I had completed an article on the subject and submitted it to Science magazine. This seemed the most appropriate place for publication, since it was the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the country's largest scientific professional association, and as such was read by a large, interdisciplinary audience of scientists throughout the world.

This was, however, an inauspicious time for the publication of an article with such negative implications for nuclear warfare and peacetime testing. The Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, had just passed, greatly increasing pressure for further development and testing of nuclear weapons. Therefore, in anticipation of possible publication difficulties, I decided to submit copies of the manuscript to a few noted scientists in the hope of gaining added support.

One copy went to Dr. Russell Morgan, chairman of the Department of Radiology at Johns Hopkins University and head of the National Advisory Committee on Radiation of the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Morgan was one of the country's most knowledgeable experts in the areas of X-ray technology and low-dose radiation effects. In his reply, he stated that the article brought into focus important implications of the work of Stewart and MacMahon that had not been fully recognized, and recommended that it should be published with only a few minor changes. Dr. Morgan also gave me his permission to refer to his statement if the paper had to be resubmitted to Science after an initial rejection.

Another copy went to Dr. Barry Commoner, professor of botany at the University of St. Louis and one of the founders of the Committee on Nuclear Information, a group that pioneered in the public dissemination of information on the effects of nuclear testing. Dr. Commoner said in his reply: "I believe that it [the article] represents a very important contribution to the subject. I hope that it will be published in Science just as it stands. . . . Your conclusion regarding the need for large-scale surveys of the incidence of leukemia and other forms of cancer is of great urgency."

The article, however, was returned by Science, accompanied by copies of two reviews and a letter of rejection from the editor, Philip Abelson. Abelson was a physical chemist who had an extensive background in the nuclear field. For many years he had worked closely with Glenn Seaborg, later chairman of the AEC and president of the AAAS, on the development of processes for the production of uranium, and he was now a member of both the General Advisory Committee of the AEC and the Project Plowshare advisory committee. (Project Plowshare was the name given to the AEC's program for the development of peaceful uses for nuclear explosives.) In his letter, Abelson stated that he had reviewed the article himself and found that "there is not enough solid material to justify publication." He further expressed the opinion that "there is really no evidence of the functional relationship between the number of X-rays taken and cancer mortality." This meant that he did not consider significant the indications in the work of Stewart and MacMahon that the risk of cancer increased directly with the increase in X-ray dose, indications which were in sharp contradiction to the threshold theory.

Upon examining the enclosed comments of the other two reviewers, who were nameless, as is the custom, I found that one was completely negative, stating that the article presented "no new observation" and ignored studies that showed no effects from diagnostic X-rays. The other reviewer, however, recommended publication. Apparently, then, it had been Abelson's opinion that weighted the scales in favor of rejection.

A few days after the article was returned, I received an unexpected letter from Dr. James H. Lade, special assistant to the commissioner for radiological health of the New York State Health Department. Since 1951 Dr. Lade had also been director of the department's Bureau of Medical Defense, a part of the state's extensive Civil Defense Program, which had carried out an "exercise" at the time of the Albany-Troy incident. As medical director, Lade had been one of those who participated in the decision that no health protection measures were necessary after the incident and that no ill effects were to be expected. His letter read as follows:

Dear Mr. Sternglass:

      I have had an opportunity to review your interesting paper on "Ionizing Radiation in the Pre-Natal Stage and the Development of Childhood Cancer," and noted your reference to Ralph Lapp's paper on the Troy-Albany fallout in 1953. We in this department have done a little investigation of the circumstances which obtained in the Troy-Albany area at that time and the number of cancer cases and deaths reported in the age group who were under two years of age at that time. You may be interested in the results of these investigations, summarized in my attached letter to Science.

Yours very truly,
James H. Lade, M.D.

Lade, apparently, either had been the negative reviewer or had been consulted by him. The "Science" letter to which he referred had been published in the November 9 issue in reply to Lapp's article. In that letter Lade attempted to minimize the possibility of any radiation effects in the Albany-Troy area from the concentration of radioactivity in the milk by arguing that the cattle in the area had not been turned out to pasture until about May 12, 1953, or some two to three weeks after the fallout had arrived on April 25. He argued that in view of the seven-day half-life[2] of iodine 131, the radiation would have decreased to only one-fourth its initial intensity by the time the cattle were turned out, so that Lapp's estimates of the dose to infant thyroids were at least four times too high. Lapp had, apparently, been unaware of this factor when he made his dose estimates, but Lade failed to mention that even if Lapp's doses were reduced by a factor of four, they would still be vastly greater than the permissible limits set by government agencies. Lade's letter also did not take into account the dose from the longer-lived isotopes such as strontium 90, strontium 89, and barium 140, with half-lives of 28 years, 50 days, and 13 days, respectively, which would certainly still be present two to three weeks after the fallout had arrived. Nor did he mention the information published by Professor Clark in the Journal of the American Water Works Association, namely, that in May and June, many weeks after the first rainout, fallout from additional tests repeatedly produced new levels of radioactivity comparable to those measured for April. This meant, of course, that Lapp's estimates, far from being four times too high, were actually much too low, for Lapp had based his estimates only on the April 26 fallout. Lade, as medical director of the Civil Defense group, worked intimately with the scientists from the New York office of the AEC who sponsored the measurements of radioactivity in the reservoirs of the area. Thus he presumably would have been aware of this circumstance.

Lade further argued that because of the heaviness of the spring rains, the radioactivity had soon been largely washed off the vegetables and pasture. But Dr. Clark and his students had found that even extreme chemical treatment was only partially effective in removing the radioactivity from the leaves and other objects to which it clung. Thus, ironically, the only effect of the rains of May and June would have been to bring down even greater amounts of fallout than had come down in April.

As a final point, Lade stated that a review of New York Health Department records indicated that no cases of thyroid cancer had since developed among the children who were under two years of age in 1953. His letter closed with the remark that "it seems most unlikely that an event which has resulted in no increase of thyroid carcinoma during the ensuing nine years will lead to such an effect in the future." Yet it was common knowledge among specialists in the field that radiation-caused thyroid cancer generally takes ten to twenty years to develop. And Lade said nothing about any increase in the incidence of leukemia, which by this time would certainly be detectable.

It could thus be determined by someone with a scientific background that Lade's letter contained absolutely no evidence to support his conclusion that the Troy fallout had been harmless. But how could the general public ever guess? This was the voice of the New York State Health Department.

Within a few weeks, I resubmitted my article to Science together with a letter referring to the statement given me by Dr. Russell Morgan. Within less than a month, it had been accepted for publication.


  1. One megaton is the equivalent in explosive energy to a million tons of TNT.

  2. The half-life of a radioactive isotope is the time it takes for the radioactivity to diminish to half its original intensity. The half-life of iodine 131 is 7 days so it is termed a short-lived isotope. Strontium 90, with a half-life of twenty-eight years, is a long-lived isotope. The radiation from a short-lived isotope is much stronger because all of it is given off in a shorter time.

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