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Nuclear weapons testing still affects human health
Alliance for Nuclear Accountability/The Workbook

February 26, 1998

Are you at risk? An important message about radiation health effects for people who were children in the 1950s

Nuclear weapons testing sill affects human health

Thousands of citizens affected by the U.S. Departmane of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons complex are asking people around the nation to become more aware of the health effects of nuclear weapons testing, as part of Radiation Health Effects Awareness Month. Unfortunately, people in many parts of the country, not just those living in the shadows of DOE sites, are at increased risk of cancer from fallout from those bomb tests.

This educational program, consisting of fact sheets, background information, and action opportunities, is sponsored by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA), a national network of grassroots and national organizations working on issues of nuclear weapons production and nuclear waste. Public education, awareness, and involvement are necessary because the health effects of above-ground nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s have still not been fully disclosed by the U.S. government even though tens of thousands of people are affected. In 1982, Congress directed the Department of Health and Human Services to assess the effects of Iodine-133 exposures from above-ground nuclear weapons tests conducted between 1945 and 1962. Results of that study were released in 1997, only after pressure was brought by ANA and other organizations.

But there is still no program to identify people specifically at risk of thyroid cancer from exposure to Iodine-131 and to provide medical treatment if needed. As part of its educational packet, ANA has produced a useful informational brochure aimed especially at people born in the 1950s, who could have received substaintial radioactive exposures from fresh milk consumed as children. The information that follows, from a brochure published by Alliance for Nuclear Acountability, describes how to obtain an estimate of your radioactive thyroid dose on the internet and how to follow up with your doctor.

Become informed -- your health may be at stake. Get involved -- it's long past time for the government to take responsibility to provide information and assistance to citizens whose health was disregarded 40 years ago.

-- Don Hancock

Are you at risk?

An important message about radiation health effects for people
who were children in the 1950s


If you were a child living in the United States during the 1950s, the following information could be important for your health:

Because you were young during the peak years of U.S. nuclear weapons testing, you may be at significantly greater risk for thyroid cancer and other diseases. Although U.S. nuclear tests were conducted in Nevada, recent studies confirm that fallout from the tests resulted in significant and potentially harmful radiation exposures in many communities all the way to the Eastern seabord.

A 1997 National Cancer Institute (NCI) report underscores a particular concern about the connection between radioactive iodine (I-131) fallout and thyroid diseases, including thyroid cancer. Many other radioactive substances were broadcast into the atmosphere during the bomb tests, but the federal government has not yet estimated their health impact.

Health Risk Factors

The risk that radioactive iodine fallout from weapons testing poses to your health depends on a number of factors. Among the most important are:

Your age.  All people who were alive during the peak period of above ground nuclear weapons tests (1945-1962) are at some increased risk for cancers and other radiation-induced health problems. Generally, the younger a person was at the time of his or her exposure(s) to radiation, the greater the risk. This includes the time before birth (in utero).

Your diet.  Fallout was in the form of several radioactive substances deposited as fine particles, deposited on pastures or directly on food stuffs. One of the most important pathways of exposure was dairy products. In addition to radioactive iodine, radioactive strontium was also carried to humans through cows' and goats' milk. The more fresh milk you consumed, the higher your radiation dose would have been.

Your location.  Prevailing winds carried radioactive fallout from the Nevada Test Site from west to east. Although distance downwind from the test site is a factor, radioactive iodine "hot spots" are found in the Mountain states, the Midwest and on the East Coast.

Your gender.  Health studies show that women are at higher risk for cancer and other diseases thought to be caused by exposure to radiation. Scientists expect that women exposed to iodine in fallout will develop thyroid cancer at a rate two to five times greater than men.

What You Can Do

Detailed information required in order to calculate your total personal radiation dose from all fallout contaminants is not yet available, partly because many radioactive substances have not been analyzed as thoroughly as I-131.

However, you can obtain an estimate of your personal radioactive iodine thyroid dose from fallout on the Internet by connecting to an interactive NCI website at http://rex.nci.nih.gov and clicking on "About Radiation Fallout."

Estimating your radiation dose is a useful way to assess the health risks associated with your exposure. Extremely high radiation doses that can cause immediate, toxic effects and death are not a concern for fallout exposure from U.S. nuclear weapons tests. Still, the prevailing scientific theory about radiation and health effects is that even very low doses of radiation can increase a person's risk for developing cancer and other diseases.

You, Your Thyroid, & Your Doctor

Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located in your throat between the base of your neck and your voice-box (the Adam's apple is a projection of thyroidal cartilage). A manual examination of the thyroid (palpation) checking the front and back of the thyroid for small lumps (nodules) should be part of a well-administered physical examination. If you believe you may be at risk, having this exam competently administered coupled with thyroid function blood tests, may be all that is necessary to maintain your health. Nodules are fairly common and usually do not pose a health threat. If a nodule is located, additional diagnosis is required to determine appropriate medical responses. Finding a nodule does not mean that it is cancerous.

Tests for thyroid function — to diagnose hypothyroidism or other thyroid diseases — are done through blood tests that check for thyroid hormone (T4) and/or thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) -- the hormone secreted by the pituitary gland to stimulate the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone. Check with your doctor to learn of physical symptoms connected with these conditions.

Finding Health Care

As part of your regular physical check-up, make sure you receive a thyroid exam, including a blood test. Let your doctor know if you have reason to believe you have an above average risk of radiation exposure.

There are several sources of health care available for low-income people.

  • County Health Departments serve county residents and may be limited in services. Contact your state health agency.
  • Community Health Centers/Migrant Health Centers serve everyone, with Migrant Health Centers specializing in health care for migrant farm workers. Call 202-659-8008 to obtain information.
  • Indian Health Service provides medical care to Native American/American Indian communities at various clinics throughout the nation. For information on clinics, call 301-422-2267.
  • Veterans hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities serve U.S. veterans but services may be limited due to service-related issues and income guidelines. Contact the regional Veterans office.
  • Medicare and Medicaid serve people 65 and older, certain disabled people and those with very low incomes. Contact your state health department for information.

What Else Can You Do?

Regrettably, the President, Congress and federal agencies with health responsibilities have been very slow to respond to public concern about fallout exposures. You can write them to request that they support research that would document human exposures to radioactive substances other than I-131 and to project their health consequences. Tell them that the nation has a moral responsibility to provide public health assistance to those at highest risk from their exposure to fallout.


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