Nuclear Testing Caused Cancers Around the Globe

By Cat Lazaroff

TAKOMA PARK, Maryland, March 4, 2002 (ENS) - Atmospheric nuclear weapons testing exposed millions of people around the globe to radioactive fallout, and may have led to the cancer deaths of more than 15,000 people, suggests an analysis of government studies by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.


The Trinity test in 1945 in southeastern New Mexico (Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory)
An estimated 80,000 people who lived in or were born in the United States between the years 1951 and 2000 will contract cancer as a result of the fallout caused by atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, warns the Institute (IEER).

A recent government report, prepared by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimates radiation doses from testing at the Nevada Test Site as well as from testing outside of the continental United States. The latter category includes U.S. tests in the Marshall Islands and Johnston Atoll in the Pacific region, Soviet tests in Semipalatinsk - now in Kazakhstan - Novaya Zemlya, Russia, and British tests on Christmas Island.

"This report and other official data show that hot spots occurred thousands of miles away from the test sites," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). "Hot spots due to testing in Nevada occurred as far away as New York and Maine. Hot spots from U.S. Pacific area testing and also Soviet testing were scattered across the United States from California, Oregon, Washington, and in the West to New Hampshire, Vermont and North Carolina in the East."

The most recent government study, a fact sheet, and official fallout maps are posted on the IEER web site at:


The Sedan Crater at the Nevada Test Site. The 104 kiloton Sedan nuclear device, part of the Plowshare program seeking peaceful uses of nuclear explosives, displaced about 12 million tons of earth, creating a crater 1,280 feet in diameter and 320 feet deep. (Photo courtesy Nevada Test Site)
The maps show cumulative fallout and county by county radiation dose and fallout patterns. These fallout areas demonstrate where excess cancers could occur because of the radiation.

"Despite that fact that its own studies have long shown extensive harm to people, including children, the U.S. government has had no effective public health response," said Lisa Ledwidge, a biologist and IEER's outreach director for the United States.

"We applaud the fact that the United States government has been honest enough to say that it has harmed its own people, though it did so only under prolonged pressure from the people and some of its elected representatives," Ledwidge continued. "It is the only nuclear weapon state to have done so. But it is not enough to estimate numbers or say you're sorry. The harm is still occurring. The government needs to inform people fully."

In the 1950s, for example, the government informed photographic film producers of expected fallout patterns so they could protect their film supply, but did nothing to inform milk producers so that they could protect a vital component of the food supply.

"It is late in the day," said Ledwidge. "The government should not only urgently formulate a health and compensation response strategy, with public involvement, it should implement it without any further delay."


Cows grazing on vegetation contaminated by radioactive fallout produced contaminated milk. (Photo by Keith Weller, courtesy Agricultural Research Service)
The NCI/CDC study was mandated by Congress through legislation passed in 1998, after a 1997 National Cancer Institute report that dealt with only one radionuclide - iodine-131 - and doses to the thyroid alone showed extensive exposures across the United States. Hot spots were scattered across the continent, with the most affected counties as far away as Idaho and Montana.

"The 1997 report indicates that some farm children, those who drank goat's milk in the 1950s in high fallout areas, were as severely exposed as the worst exposed children after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Such exposure creates a high probability of a variety of illnesses," said Dr. Makhijani. "Yet the government did nothing to inform the people in these affected areas."

The NIC/CDC report notes that "for most people, the major exposure route was the ingestion of cows' milk contaminated as the result of iodine-131 deposited on pasture grasses." The agencies also looked at other exposure routes such as contaminated air, vegetables, eggs and various dairy products.

The researchers learned that goats' milk concentrates radioactive iodine-131 more than cows' milk.


Because goat's milk absorbs more radioactive iodine than cow's milk, people drinking goat's milk may have a higher risk of fallout related cancers (Photo by Larry Rana, courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)
"It is estimated that at that time about 20,000 individuals in the U.S. population consumed goats' milk," the report notes. "Thyroid doses to those individuals could have been 10 to 20 times greater than those to other residents of the same county who were the same age and sex and drank the same amount of cows' milk."

Kenneth Strickler learned in 1998 that he had thyroid cancer after his physician ran some tests. Strickler, who was born in 1954 in Challis, Idaho, a high fallout area, and who grew up there, said the public deserved to have more information about fallout zones.

"The government should make the public aware of the symptoms of the types of cancer that might be caused from downwind syndrome," Strickler said. "They should publish an ad in the newspapers so that people can look for more information at their web site."

Strickler suspected that a malfunctioning thyroid might be responsible for his strange metabolic symptoms as a result of information about thyroid radiation doses from fallout given to him by his sister, Nikki Doll. Doll attended a talk given in 1998 in Challis by Dr. Makhijani as part of a tour organized by the Snake River Alliance.


A 23 kiloton, above ground nuclear test explosion (Photo courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory)
"It is very frightening to know that radioactive tests were conducted by the United States and other countries with the knowledge that some harm might come to those who lived in the path of fallout," said Doll. "If the public is made aware of the possible dangers that hide in their environment, they can be alert to the symptoms and seek early diagnosis and treatment of a disease if it strikes."

"The U.S. government needs to be responsible for its actions and to inform us about what they did and how it is affecting our lives and how it will continue to affect the lives of those we love," added Doll.

While the United States already has a compensation program for people who lived downwind of the Nevada Test Site, site of several above ground nuclear tests, it does not cover the majority of Americans who may have been exposed to radioactive fallout, IEER warns.

"There are hot spots thousands of miles from tests sites and the new definition of 'downwinder' should include all of them," explained Ledwidge.

"The new fallout maps and radiation dose estimates show that nuclear weapons states not only harmed their own people but also people in other countries," added Dr. Makhijani. "U.S., Soviet, and other testing likely created hot spots in Canada and Scandinavia, for instance. There may have been hot spots in many other countries all over the world."

"It is high time for the United Nations to create a Global Truth Commission that would examine in detail comparable to the U.S government studies the harm that has been inflicted upon the people of the world by nuclear weapons production and testing," concluded Dr. Makhijani. "Nuclear weapons states owe an honest accounting, treatment and compensation to the victims of the nuclear age."

The CDC/NCI report is available at: