The Minds of the Children
DRAINED by the long battle to warn the people of Beaver County and Pittsburgh of the dangers arising from the "normal" operations of nuclear plants, I decided to devote myself again to my much-neglected research in physics and radiological instrumentation. Many people had by now taken up the fight to warn the public about other previously unrecognized dangers of the nuclear fuel cycle, all the way from the mining and milling of uranium ore to the ultimate disposal of the long-lived radioactive wastes and the possible theft of plutonium by terrorist groups to make home-made bombs. Thus, when Henry Kendall of the Union of Concerned Scientists joined forces with Ralph Nader in exposing the previously hidden risks of a major accident in early 1974, I felt that the battle was in good hands while I caught up with my other responsibilities.
Now and then I would of course be asked to speak or testify at licensing hearings or court cases, but with the revelations of secret abuses of power in the Nixon administration and the formation of Nader's "Critical Mass" organization of anti-nuclear groups in the fall of 1974, I had the feeling that the public's blind trust in its government leaders had at last been shaken, and that the tide had begun to turn. It seemed to me that the nuclear juggernaut would eventually be halted as a new generation of young scientists, engineers, and political leaders born after Hiroshima could take an unbiased look at the enormous problems that had been kept from the public and that were now increasingly coming to light.
What did continue to concern me very much were the repeated episodes of heavy fallout of radioactive iodine from Chinese nuclear tests that continued to damage the thyroids of the unborn and the infants, but that continued to be downplayed by state and federal health agencies. There was also the failure of any real progress toward an end to the multiplication of nuclear bombs, despite the signing of the SALT treaty that at least for the moment had halted an all-out anti-ballistic missile race.
In addition, there were also the continuing underground bomb tests by the U.S., the Russians, the French, and the British. No one paid much attention to these anymore, but on numerous occasions in the past such tests had spewed forth radioactive gases that kept raising the risk of cancer and threatening the life and health of the newborn thousands of miles away.
I remembered only too well the tragic story of one of the worst of such accidents. On December 18, 1970, more than seventeen years after Professor Clark and his students accidentally discovered the rainout in Troy, New York, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission conducted an underground nuclear-weapons test at the Nevada Test Site. Code-named "Baneberry," this Hiroshima-sized bomb was exploded some 800 feet underground. The explosion opened up a fissure in the rock, and large quantities of radioactivity escaped upward into the atmosphere. In the vicinity of the test site, the slowly drifting cloud of radioactive dust produced readings of 25 rads per hour on the ground. Hundreds of employees were seriously overexposed and had to be quickly evacuated.
Shortly after the accident, the AEC's Division of Biology and Medicine and the Utah State Division of Health notified a team of fallout specialists working at the University of Utah under contract to the AEC. The team, headed by Drs. Robert C. Pendleton and Charles W. Mays, scientists who had long warned of the dangers to the infant thyroid from radioactive iodine, immediately set about determining the direction and intensity of the radioactive clouds. From the Salt Lake Weather Bureau they learned the speed of the winds at the time of detonation, while the Nevada Operations Office informed them that the radioactive leakage had occurred during a period of very strong wind shear, with winds at different altitudes blowing in different directions. The team was able to estimate that during the next twenty-four hours the lowest part of the cloud would probably go to the east of Winnemucca, Nevada,while the layer above would be blown across Utah to the southeast. The next-highest layer was apparently headed for New Mexico, while the topmost parts were expected to be carried into Utah between Highways 56 and 21.
Once the direction of the fallout was estimated, the extensive network of sampling stations around the state, constructed in the years since the dangers from fallout in the milk were discovered, could go into operation, estimating the strength of the radioactivity in the air and on the ground. This was indeed a far more sophisticated operation than the one mounted so long before by Dr. Clark's students, driving from town to town in their jalopies carrying rudimentary Geiger counters. And in this case, there was no problem about estimating the internal radiation dose, something that had not even been considered in Troy back in 1953. Now, a program run jointly with the Utah Division of Fish and Game was put into action to procure samples of the local wildlife that had been in the path of the fallout. Conservation officers were enlisted to collect deer that had recently been killed on the highways, while sheep, deer, and rabbits were shot in areas where they were regarded as a nuisance. These animals were to be dissected in the laboratory, where the concentrations of isotopes in their body organs would be measured.
On December 19 and 20, teams departed from Salt Lake City to obtain samples of snow and vegetation. Instead of the burdock leaves favored by Dr. Clark and his students, the fallout specialists took samples of alfalfa, sagebrush, and juniper. Some of the alfalfa samples consisted of loose hay from exposed bales.
According to the laboratory results, the most prominent gamma-radiation-emitting isotopes in the Baneberry fallout were the short-lived, intensely radioactive iodine 131 and iodine 133. These were found in the lungs, thyroids, stomachs, and fetuses of deer and sheep, as well as in snow, milk, and vegetation. The fallout specialists were able to determine that if the Baneberry explosion had happened to take place in the warmer months, when the cows were out to pasture, the total dose to the local children from iodine in the milk would have been approximately 120 millirads, with some receiving much higher exposures. This did not include the dose from the other isotopes inhaled or eaten. Furthermore, the scientists observed that low wind velocities and an atmospheric inversion had fortunately served to keep the fallout that reached Utah fairly stationary for a number of days in a position over relatively unpopulated areas. This allowed quantities of the heaviest fallout particles to settle to the ground, while the short-lived isotopes lost much of their radioactivity before the cloud was blown over the more populated areas. If these fortuitous circumstances had not existed, the doses might have been much higher for the people of Utah, perhaps as high as in Troy in 1953.
As it turned out, the predictions of where the fallout would drift were wrong. The heaviest clouds went north and northeast toward Idaho, Washington, and Montana, where rain and snow brought down much more radioactivity than in Utah. Subsequently, the fallout from Baneberry was detected across the northern U.S. by large rises in the cesium 137 levels in milk, as could be seen in the state-by-state tabulation of cesium levels for December 1970 printed in the April 1971 issue of Radiation Health Data and Reports. Data for the radioactivity on the ground also showed that the fallout had drifted into Canada, thus violating the provisions of the 1963 test-ban treaty, which does not permit nuclear tests that release radioactivity beyond the national borders of the nation conducting them.
But as far as the general public was concerned, there was only the following statement by the AEC, carried by The New York Times and the rest of the press around the country:
The Commission said that the radioactivity was of such low intensity that it presented no danger. It was detected at altitudes of several thousand feet, and only the most minute traces of radioactive contamination would reach the ground, the Commission said. The AEC . . . said that nowhere outside the immediate area of the test was the fallout dangerous to human life or health.
In the spring of 1971 our group gathered the data for radioactivity in the air, in the milk, and on the ground both before and after the Baneberry test. This was then correlated with the mortality figures for infants born following the explosion, as reported in the U.S. Monthly Vital Statistics. In all of the states where the total radioactivity rose highest -- Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Nebraska, and as far away as Minnesota and Maine -- infant mortality also rose sharply during the first three months after the test. Across the rest of the U.S., the pattern of general decline continued.
It was shortly after reading another story in the papers about how the United States and the Soviet Union had failed to agree once again on a treaty to halt all underground nuclear tests that my attention was caught by an article in The New York Times about an apparently unrelated subject. The report dealt with the fact that in 1975 the scores in the nationwide Scholastic Aptitude Tests had dropped by the largest amount in two decades. While there had been a more or less steady decline in both the verbal and the mathematical scores since the mid-1960s, generally by no more than 2 or 3 points, the average verbal scores had suddenly dropped 10 points in a single year. Since our son was taking the S.A.T. tests that year, I read the article with more than casual interest.
Suddenly the question flashed through my mind: When were these young people born or in their mother's womb? Most of them were 18 years old when they graduated from high school. What was 18 taken from 1975? It was 1957, the year when the largest amount of radioactive fallout ever measured descended on the United States from the highest kilotonnage of nuclear weapons ever detonated in Nevada. Just as in the case of the Baneberry test, the radioactive iodines must have gone to the thyroids of the infants in their mother's womb, where it would retard their growth and development ever so slightly so that it was not readily noticeable, and only when the children were tested 17 to 18 years later on a nationwide scale would it show up in a sharp drop in intellectual performance.
Clearly, if the effects were serious enough to lead to a rise in infant mortality and congenital defects back in 1957, as I knew had taken place, then for every baby that died shortly after birth, there must have been many who were minimally brain-damaged or whose cognitive growth may not have reached its full potential.
I remembered from the 1969 Hanford symposium that this was exactly what had happened to the young children on the Marshall Islands after the radioactive cloud from the "Bravo" hydrogen-bomb test in 1954 had accidentally showered the island of Rongelap, 150 miles away, with fresh fallout. As reported by Conard at that meeting, in the following fifteen years, all the children developed thyroid disease of one form or another and showed severe growth retardation, both in their bodies and the size of their brains.
But the thought was really too disturbing to contemplate in all its enormous implications. Perhaps it was just a coincidence and nothing more. After all, as the Times story made clear, there were so many other possible factors that could have been involved, including a deterioration of the schools, more disadvantaged students taking the tests, more urban problems, and the whole upheaval of the Vietnam war. Even too much television viewing had been blamed for the drop in reading ability, as well as a general decline in motivation among young people. But I was glad that I had urged my wife and all our friends to give powdered milk to their children during their years of infancy, in which the short-lived iodine 131 had had a chance to decay away.
Not being an expert in the field of psychological testing, I clearly was out of my depth. Consequently, I decided to put the idea aside for the moment, thinking that perhaps some day there might be an opportunity to discuss it with colleagues and friends more knowledgeable in this field. Besides, I saw no obvious way to test this idea further at this time. It was true that the decline had begun only in 1963, eighteen years after 1945, when the first bombs were detonated and infant mortality began to halt its decline. But only time would tell whether the decline would end when the students taking the test were those who were born during the temporary nuclear bomb test moratorium between 1959 and 1961. (This group would be taking the S.A.T. in 1977 and 1978.)
In the face of widespread public alarm, a special panel on the decline in Scholastic Aptitude scores was created under the direction of former Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz. The Wirtz panel commissioned more than two dozen special research studies under the joint sponsorship of the College Board and the Educational Testing Service; these studies were published in 1977 together with a summary report, a copy of which I sent for when its completion was announced in another article in The New York Times.
It was clear from the report that despite this major effort to identify the cause or causes of the disturbing decline in test scores, no single factor or group of factors seemed to explain the observed pattern of decline. The various studies did conclude, however, that certain factors were not likely to have played a significant part in the sudden decline. For example, cultural bias, differences in the predictive ability of the tests for whites and blacks, changes in the difficulty of the test, and tests getting out of line with high school practices and standards were eliminated as likely explanations.
Since even after this major research effort no one had come up with any really adequate explanation, I decided to discuss my hypothesis with an old friend, Dr. Henry P. David, a psychologist living near Washington, whenever the opportunity would present itself next.
To my surprise, after listening quietly to my explanation for a long while, he did not think that it was so impossible after all. There had apparently been a growing recognition in the psychological community that many physical factors acting on the developing baby during pregnancy -- including cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and anesthetics used during delivery -- could result in retarded growth, underweight births, and various degrees of learning and behavioral problems later in childhood.
Thus encouraged, I decided to pursue the matter further, particularly since one of the predictions of the hypothesis had just been confirmed: As suddenly as the annual drop in verbal S.A.T. scores had gone to ten points in 1975, it had just as unexpectedly stopped dropping so precipitously in the following two years, declining by only three points in 1976 and a mere two points by 1977.
Many years ago, I had had occasion to look up the total amount of fission energy released by small tactical weapons detonated in Nevada as measured in kilotons, or thousands of tons, of equivalent weight of TNT. (The Hiroshima bomb was approximately 15 kilotons.) When I found the figures, they were 303 kilotons in 1957, 18 kilotons in 1958, and none in 1959. So far, at least, the idea had withstood its first test, and the ability of a theory to make a correct prediction is universally regarded as a very crucial factor in accepting it. But I needed to find someone in the field of educational testing with whom to work on the further examination of these ideas.
It so happened that shortly after I had started to look for a collaborator, I received a letter from Dr. Steven Bell, an educational psychologist at a small college in Georgia. In the letter he told me that he had heard about my findings on infant and fetal mortality changes that were correlated with fallout, and he asked whether I had ever considered the possibility that it might have had an effect on learning ability.
Delighted with this coincidence, I wrote back that indeed I had begun to suspect this, and that I would be happy to work with him on this question. I included copies of all my relevant papers and some preliminary plots showing a correlation of the declining S.A.T. scores with the pattern of accumulated external gamma-radiation doses measured at the Brookhaven National Laboratories. Oddly enough, this had been introduced into the record of the licensing hearings for the Shoreham nuclear plant some years ago by proponents for its construction when I was asked to testify as to the potential danger that the planned releases might present for children born in the area.
As it turned out, Bell had for some years become increasingly concerned about the possibility that physical and chemical agents in the environment might have much more serious effects on I.Q. and achievement test scores than had been suspected. Such factors acting on the baby in the mother's womb would be indistinguishable from hereditary problems, so that individuals born in an environment where there were such deleterious factors present might show learning disabilities that would wrongly be blamed either on "bad genes" or the poor social and educational environment alone.
Since very often the poor were blacks, Indians, or Puerto Ricans, the generally lower I.Q. and S.A.T. scores of these groups as a whole could mistakenly be blamed on genetic factors when actually there could be an unrecognized effect of such physical and chemical agents as DDT, cigarette smoking, air pollution, herbicides, poor diet, high fallout, and drug use during pregnancy -- factors that had been generally ignored by psychologists studying intellectual development in the past. And since poor diet and health are more common among the poor, minority groups would be disproportionately affected by these factors.
Certainly all the earlier studies on infant and fetal mortality rates had consistently shown that nonwhites suffered about twice the mortality rates of infants within the white population, and this was widely recognized as being connected with poverty and poor diet and not with any inherited factors. When the mortality rates had stopped declining after the onset of heavy nuclear testing in the early 1950s, the greatest negative effects were in the nonwhite population of the rural south and the urban ghettos of the Northeast, where not only the fallout but also the poverty was greatest. And even after the end of the heaviest fallout from the atmospheric bomb tests in the mid-1960s although both white and nonwhite infant mortality were declining rapidly once more, as I had predicted back in 1969, the absolute mortality rate for nonwhites was still twice what it was for the white populations in such urbanized states as Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois.
But wherever there were no large groups of very poor populations and the environment was relatively free from both ordinary industrial and radioactive pollution -- as in Hawaii, Alaska, Montana, and New Hampshire -- infant mortality rates were plunging to unprecedented low levels in the late 1970s. The rates were dropping far below those of the urban states with large nuclear reactors, such as New York and Pennsylvania, despite the higher number of physicians per person and the greater access to hospitals with special units for the care of premature babies. And a similar pattern had begun to show in cancer rates.
All of these considerations supported the hypothesis that radioactive fallout might have been one widely distributed factor that had been neglected in the search for a cause of the declining learning and reading abilities of the young students born in the 1950s. But how could this be tested further?
Bell and I had sent for one of the studies carried out for the Wirtz commission by Dr. Rex Jackson of the Educational Testing Service. The study contained a detailed statistical breakdown of the scores by region since 1971. Since fallout also had differed in intensity for different regions of the United States, here was another chance to check the hypothesis.
If it was indeed the poor schools of the large urban areas that were mainly responsible for the drop in scores, then clearly the greatest declines should have taken place in the Middle Atlantic Region, which included New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, together with the Midwest populations in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio, with their large ghetto areas.
On the other hand the Western Region, which included the states of Alaska, Hawaii, California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado, with their relatively rural populations and relatively fewer urban ghetto problems should clearly show the least decline.
But exactly the opposite was the case. Comparing the scores for the high school graduating classes of 1976 with those for 1974, during which the United States as a whole dropped 13 points in the verbal test, the West dropped 19 points compared to only 9 points for the Midwest and 14 points for the Middle Atlantic states.
Even the South, with its relatively low average income, poorer school systems, and lowest educational expenditures, dropped by much less than the West, namely by only 13 points. No other region declined as much as the western United States, with its relatively clean air, clean water, and generally higher average socio-economic level.
Nor would the wide difference in the drop fit the hypothesis that it was television viewing that was responsible for the great drop in reading and mathematics scores. It was difficult to believe that the children in Illinois, Ohio, and New York watched television so much less than those living in California, Washington, and Idaho.
Certainly the ghettos of Chicago, Detroit, and New York had suffered a much greater social upheaval than most of the West, except for Los Angeles, and they clearly contained the greater number of minority groups, broken homes, one-parent families, and run-down schools plagued by vandalism, absenteeism, and violence in the classrooms. But the decline in scores did fit the pattern of the weapons-test fallout during the years of 1956 to 1958, when these children were born.
By far the largest amount of fallout from the Pacific and Siberian tests had rained out over Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California, where the coastal mountain ranges near the population centers of Seattle and Portland showed the highest amounts of strontium 90, cesium 137, and other radioactive substances in the milk and diet. And in Nevada and Utah, the large 1957 series of tactical-nuclear-weapons tests had brought down the highest levels of short-lived iodine 131 in the milk ever recorded. It was, in fact, in the clean coastal counties of the Pacific Northwest where lung cancer rates had risen most sharply.
By contrast, the areas of the Midwest such as lower Illinois, Indiana,and Ohio had been spared the heaviest fresh fallout, which drifted mainly across the northern United States from the Nevada test site over Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, until it reached the Appalachian Mountains of northern New York and New England. There the heavy rain and snowfall as well as the greater air pollution would bring it down in large amounts, just as the acid rain brought down the sulphur dioxide emitted by the coal plants of the Midwest. Together with the effects of poverty and ordinary air pollution of the industrial East, this could explain why the Middle Atlantic and New England states showed an intermediate drop in scores of only 12 to 14 points, between the West's 19 points and the 8 points of the Midwestern plain.
Bell and I realized that it would be extremely important to obtain the scores for some of the individual states, but these were not listed in any of the existing publications. Not until the summer of 1979, shortly before we were scheduled to present an invited paper at the meeting of the American Psychological Association in September, did we find a way to obtain the scores for four out of the five states for which the U.S. Public Health Service had measured the fallout levels back in 1957. Apparently, some of the states did not want their S.A.T. scores to be published, and so the College Board was able to release to us only the data for California, Utah, Ohio, and New York, but not for Missouri.
But as soon as I opened the letter with the data I knew that the hypothesis was once again supported by the evidence: By far the greatest drop between 1974 and 1976 had indeed occurred in the state with the highest levels of radio-iodine in the milk, namely Utah, and the smallest drop was recorded for the midwestern state of Ohio, largely to the south of the drifting clouds of fallout that had passed over Minnesota, Michigan, New York, southern Ontario Province in Canada and northern New England. The magnitude of the effect was difficult to believe, but here in the letter from the College Board were the hard numbers: Utah had dropped 26 points and Ohio only 2.
There was just no way that such an enormous difference in the sudden drop could be explained solely by socio-economic factors, differences in the quality of teachers, school curricula, television viewing, amount of cigarette smoking, drug use, alcohol consumption, or other gradually changing physical factors in the environment such as air pollution or pesticides.
In fact, if smoking, alcohol, and drug taking during pregnancy had been a factor, Utah, with its large Mormon population, should have declined less and not more than Ohio and New York. But it was the other way around: The population with lower cigarette consumption, alcohol, and drug problems during pregnancy had the greater decline in Scholastic Aptitude scores by many times the normal statistical fluctuation of 2 to 3 points.
Nor could differences in the genetic factors of the two populations be blamed: They were both predominantly white, and in fact the Mormons had originally come from the East and Midwest. Besides, genetic or inherited factors would lead to long-term differences, not the sudden changes that had taken place. Tragically, it now appears that we had unwittingly carried out an experiment with ourselves as guinea pigs on a worldwide scale. This discovery made me more determined than ever to do everything in my power to make sure that the terribly costly lesson would be learned before mankind would make further and perhaps more irreversible mistakes with fallout from nuclear war or nuclear reactor accidents, in which the radioactivity equivalent to a thousand Hiroshima bombs might suddenly be released over vast areas the size of entire states or nations.
But as we pointed out at the Psychological Association meeting, there was also reason for hope in the data for individual states. First of all, the test scores in Utah rebounded partially by 9 points the following year, when the nuclear test ban apparently showed its effect for the children conceived eighteen years earlier. At least some of the damage was not permanent, presumably because it affected the fetal thyroid more than the mother's, and the iodine was gone from the milk within a matter of a few months after the bomb tests ended, although damage from strontium 90 and its daughter product, yttrium 90, to the pituitary gland would continue for many years, since it had accumulated in the bones of young women for decades.
Also, it was encouraging that the average level of performance on the tests had been so much higher in Utah than in any of the three other states for which we had the data. Although California, New York, and Ohio all showed scores in 1974 that were above the U.S. average of 440, down 38 points from the maximum of 478 in 1963, Utah had by far the highest score, namely 532, compared with 459 for Ohio, 454 for New York, and 450 for California.
Thus, it appeared that given the kind of quality school system that the people of Utah had established, together with the good diet, the low amount of smoking, drug use, and alcohol consumption during pregnancy, it was possible to attain a much higher degree of performance on this type of achievement test. The potential for raising the school performance of our children in the future was therefore clearly immense if we could only learn to use our vast productive capability to provide better diets, better schools, and better prenatal care as the Mormons had been able to do. Instead we were investing more and more of our national income in gigantic nuclear reactors for both military and civilian purposes that were filling the air and drinking water with invisible radioactive poisons, destroying the most important resource of our nation, the physical and mental health of our children.
Furthermore, this high intellectual performance was achieved in Utah despite serious local pollution problems from copper smelters, large coal-burning plants, and as many automobiles per capita as anywhere else in the United States. (Neither copper smelters, coal plants, nor automobiles produce strontium 90 or iodine 131.) It was obviously not necessary to return to a primitive, nonindustrial society for people to have capable children or to live a long, healthy, and useful life. For not only did the people of Utah have children with test scores that were far above the average of the rest of the United States, but they also had among the lowest rates of heart disease and cancer in the entire nation.
Since the Mormon customs discouraged smoking, they did not experience the large synergistic multiplying factor for lung cancer that smokers experienced when the radioactive fallout arrived. Just as the uranium miners who did not smoke were better off than their coworkers who did, the Mormons were able to clear out of their lungs the fine radioactive dust particles more rapidly than those whose lung clearance was slowed down by the nicotine in cigarette smoke. Thus, their religious customs resulted in much lower amounts of both man-made and natural radioactivity staying in their lungs or entering their bloodstream, reducing greatly the risk of low-level exposure leading to rises in lung cancer, heart ailments, and other chronic diseases.
Both Bell and I were surprised by how well our rather startling hypothesis was received by the large number of psychologists who came prepared to question our theory. In the ensuing discussion, questions were raised as to whether a change in the mix of the students taking the tests might not explain a good portion of the long decline in test scores. That is, could the decline in scores be explained by the increase of students from lower-income homes who in the past would not have thought of going to college? This was indeed likely to be the case in the early years, according to some of the studies published by the Wirtz Commission, but it could not explain either the sudden sharp drop followed by a halt in the late 1970s, when the total number of students taking the tests was actually declining. Nor could an increase in the number of less well-prepared students explain the recent wholesale decline in the number of students who could score above 600 or 700 out of the possible maximum of 800 points in these tests.
It was, in fact, the extremely sharp decline in the number of very high-scoring students that presented the greatest potential problem for a society increasingly dependent on verbal and mathematical skills to run the computers, design the automated machines for the factories and farms of the future, administer an increasingly high-technology society, and operate the sophisticated electronic weapons of a modern army. Instead of 189,300 students who had been able to score above 600 in the verbal test among those born in 1952-53, there were suddenly only 110,300 for the birth years of 1957-58, a drop of 42 percent. And an even greater drop occurred for the top students on whom our society would depend for much of its new ideas, creativity, and leadership skills in the arts, the sciences, and engineering, namely those who were able to score over 700. In this category, the numbers were cut by more than half, from a high point of 33,200 born before the Nevada tests began in 1949-50 to a low of only 14,800 for those born in 1957-58, the years of the heaviest fallout from our weapons testing.
It was only too evident that if the radioactivity in the environment led to early infant mortality, childhood cancer, thyroid damage, and underweight births, then also the learning ability of the surviving children might never develop its full potential.
And it would be the steady decline in the ability to read and reason and not so much the rising cancer rates in old age that would be the real seed for the self-destruction of a modern technological society. The children that could not read or cope with mathematics and science would drop out of school and become permanently unemployable. And these young people would feel increasingly resentful toward those whom they blamed for their failure: their teachers, their parents, and their political leaders. Even worse, they would blame themselves and suffer from low self-esteem.
Many of the unemployed and discouraged young people would drift into crime, vastly raising the level of violence and fear in the cities. Not knowing what caused their problems, they would increasingly resort to drugs and alcohol to overcome their sense of failure and hopelessness, raising the rate of juvenile suicide and crime still further.
Not being aware of the subtle thyroid damage with its resultant lethargy, parents would blame the teachers, and teachers would blame the parents for the increasing loss of interest, discipline, reading ability, and general motivation of the students. Vast sums of money would be spent in efforts to help the slow learners and the many handicapped students suddenly flooding the schools, draining the resources of society at the very time when there would not be enough highly skilled, resourceful, and inventive young people produced to improve the teaching and raise the productivity of factories, businesses, and farms. At the same time, the cost of health care would spiral as more and more developed early chronic disabilities, a situation that would lead to increasing absenteeism from offices, schools, and factories, and thus further reduce the output of goods and services while expectations continued to rise.
As productivity dropped while the need for costly special education and disability payments rose, the vast amount of borrowing that government would have to do to provide for the rapidly growing number of unemployed, handicapped, and sick would drive up the rate of inflation more and more. To keep ahead of the inflation, as well as to dampen its flames, the banks would have to raise their interest rates so as not to lose money by lending. Industrial machinery could not be modernized because borrowing the money would become too costly. The factories and farms would fall still further behind in their ability to meet the growing demand for manufactured goods and food, further adding to the pressures of inflation.
At the same time, the smaller supply of capable and creative young people needed to fill the jobs as engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, computer specialists, teachers, managers, and officers for the increasingly sophisticated factories, offices, schools, hospitals, and military services would drive up salaries, adding still more fuel to the inflationary fires. More and more plants would be forced to shut down because they could not compete with more modern factories in other countries whose young workers were more productive because these countries were not in the direct path of the fresh fallout from Nevada and therefore less heavily exposed to short-lived iodine. Also a greater fraction of the reduced supply of talented and inventive young people would be absorbed in the unproductive tasks of developing ever more complex and costly nuclear-weapons systems and reactors, thus further weakening the economic situation of the nation as it was forced to import ever larger amounts of civilian goods and machinery from other countries.
As I thought about this scenario, I wondered how much of this had already begun to happen, as juvenile crime and suicide suddenly doubled and tripled in the mid-1970s among the children born in the late 1950s all over the U.S. and in northern industrial countries, where the fresh fallout had come down most heavily. The end of weapons testing in Nevada had led to a halt in the decline of intellectual ability among those tested eighteen years later, especially those born well after 1963, when bomb testing ended. There were now fewer children born blind and deaf showing up in the statistics, and there were fewer leukemia cases, brain tumors, and suicides among children and adolescents. Fewer crimes were being committed by young people under 18 years old than during the mid-1970s, when the intellectual achievement scores had dropped most rapidly, although the latest crime statistics showed a second large jump in 1979, corresponding to the second series of heavy atmospheric bomb tests 17 to 18 years earlier in 1961-1962.
There were now also fewer who were born immature, underweight, and thus dying of chronic and infectious diseases, except near the growing number of nuclear reactors that started operating in the early 1970s.
There was to be yet another development that strongly supported the hypothesis that fallout had unanticipated effects on mental development of the young. Just six months after the meeting of the American Psychological Association in New York where we had presented our findings, another scientific meeting took place in Baltimore devoted to the biological effects of ionizing radiation. At this meeting, Dr. Charlotte Silverman of the Bureau of Radiological Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services presented a paper entitled "Mental Function Following Scalp X-Irradiation for Tinea Capitatis in Childhood," a condition more commonly known as ringworm of the scalp.
Dr. Silverman summarized the results of studies of two groups of children treated by means of X-rays, a method no longer used. One group of 2,215 children was followed at New York University Medical Center, and another group of 10,842 children at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Israel was followed over a period of 20 to 25 years, together with matched groups of non-irradiated controls. Aside from an increase in the number of brain and thyroid tumors, there was also an excess of nervous, mental and behavioral problems in the irradiated groups. As Dr. Silverman reported, "The New York investigators found a higher incidence of treated psychiatric disorders among the irradiated which persisted during an observation time of about 30 years."
For the Israeli group as originally reported by Drs. B. Modan and E. Ron at the Sixth International Congress of Radiation Research in Tokyo earlier that year, Dr. Silverman summarized the results as follows:
Several measures of brain function, mental ability and scholastic achievement demonstrate that the irradiated children suffered impairment. These findings are consistent with and extend previous findings of suggestive brain damage from radiation.
The doses to the thyroids of the children were listed as having been in the range of 6 to 9 rads, well below the doses of 10 to 60 rads received by the children of Utah from the fallout of the Nevada tests reported by Dr. C. W. Mays at the August 1963 Congressional Hearings for the children of Utah in 1962, or the 5 to 40 rads estimated by Dr. Eric Reiss for the children of the Troy-Albany area where heavy rainouts in distant areas had first been discovered.
Since the thyroid doses to the more sensitive developing fetus are generally 10 to 20 times as great as for the young infant, it was therefore not surprising that effects on brain function, mental ability and scholastic achievement should be observable for the children born in Utah and other areas subjected to bomb fallout during the years of nuclear weapons testing.
Shortly after the Baltimore meeting, the College Board sent me the SAT scores for 45 out of the 50 states up to the most recent testing period of 1978-79, 17 years after the second nuclear weapons series of tests in 1962. It was clear that this more detailed data would provide a crucial test of our prediction that there should be another sharp drop in the scores associated with the series of Nevada bomb tests, and that the greatest declines should again be observed for the western United States downwind from Nevada.
After going through the table, I saw that the answer was quickly apparent. Among all the states listed, Utah again showed the sharpest decline in the entire United States, 11 points in a single year. The declines diminished with distance away from Utah across the northern United States until they reached 5 points in New York, 3 points in Connecticut and only 1 point in Rhode Island.
How long would it take before the public would be able to learn of these facts? How long would it take before the damage that the governments deeply committed to nuclear technology for weapons and energy were continuing to inflict upon their own children would be ended? There were, of course, hopeful signs among those born in rural areas far from the nuclear plants in the years since the bomb fallout had stopped. Would any government leaders dominated by fear of foreign enemies be able to find the courage to carry out the epidemiological studies that had been called for so often in the past and admit the tragic errors that had been made? Or were we all helplessly lock-stepped on the road to the self-destruction that blind persistence in the course we had taken would surely bring to our nation and all those who had followed us in the frantic rush toward the false promise of unlimited power presented by the discovery of self-sustaining fission?
All this had enormous implications for the proposed new missile systems and the scenarios used to justify their need. If indeed the fallout from the bomb tests in Nevada was the principal new factor responsible for the unprecedented sudden drop in mental abilities among newborn in those tragic years, then the detonation of just two or three half-megaton warheads on the missile silos in Nevada and Utah would cause a drop equal to that observed during the seven years of small-tactical-weapons testing. What then would a massive strike of many thousands of such warheads, exploded near the surface on our missile silos in the West, mean for the future of our nation, even if not a single one of our cities were destroyed? Knowing the enormous sensitivity of the fetus in the mother's womb, was it really credible that any President of the United States could be blackmailed into not firing our missiles after such a hypothetical attack in the hope of "saving" the population in the cities of the east? And what would it profit the leaders of another country that had launched such a blow against us if within days, a massive cloud of drifting fallout would poison the air, the food, and water of their children for generations, even if not a single one of our missiles should ever reach their land?
back to Secret Fallout | radiation | rat haus | Index | Search