Environment: A Fallout of Nuclear Fear

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New concern over the dangers of low-level radiation

During the early 1950s, parents in the little town of St. George in southwestern Utah often woke their children up at 6 a.m., hustled them to the top of Black Hill on the western edge of the community, and let them watch the mushroom clouds rising into the dawn sky over the atomic-bomb testing site in neighboring Nevada. When a pinkish-red cloud drifted over St. George hours later, the parents were not frightened; after all, the Atomic Energy Commission had assured them that "there is no danger" from radioactive fallout. Some parents even held Geiger counters on their children and exclaimed in wonder as the needles jumped.

A generation later, the awe has turned into fear. Studies now show that an unusually high number of those Utah youngsters exposed to nuclear fallout eventually died of leukemia. Similarly, there are indications of a high cancer rate among military personnel who observed the tests at close range. At the same time, other investigations are finding high incidences of cancer among the workers who overhaul nuclear submarines at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Me. This evidence raises anew one of the most difficult questions of the nuclear age: What is the minimum threshold at which even seemingly low levels of radiation begin causing damage to the human body? While the U.S. has long since stopped nuclear tests in the atmosphere (although the Chinese and French have not), hundreds of thousands of Americans are exposed regularly to low-level radiation—aboard atomic ships and submarines, inside nuclear power plants, in research laboratories, or indeed at any time they get an X ray.

In one study Dr. Joseph L. Lyon of the University of Utah's Medical College found that the incidence of leukemia deaths among children aged 14 or less who were living in Utah counties along the fallout pathway during the 1950s was 2.4 times as high as the rate among people of the same age who lived in the same area before and since. Lyon's findings are not conclusive, since he had insufficient information to prove cause and effect in any individual death. In addition, the actual numbers are small: 32 leukemia deaths in high-fallout counties, vs. 13 that might normally have been expected. But if the increase was not caused by the fallout, he asks, "What else could account for it?"

Many Westerners whose families and friends were struck by cancer think the answer is self-evident. Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and other lawyers have filed 447 claims against the Government since September on behalf of residents of Arizona, Nevada and Utah, seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation for cancers allegedly caused by fallout.

Poring over union records and death certificates in the Portsmouth case, Dr. Thomas Najarian, a Boston blood specialist, concluded in 1977 that the overall cancer rate among the workers was twice the national average; the leukemia rate was four to six times as high. His report inspired Roland Belhumeur, a retired Portsmouth employee, to start a list of cancer deaths among shipyard workers. His tally so far: 40 men, all aged 45 to 50, a level of cancer mortality that he believes is unusually high.

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