Nuclear test fall-out killed thousands in US
NewScientist | March 1, 2005
Radioactive fall-out from the world's nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War has killed 11,000 Americans with cancer, according to a new report by US scientists. Experts say that many thousands more are likely to have died in other countries.
The report, prepared by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) for Congress, is the first attempt to estimate the total number of cancers caused by the atmospheric testing programme. Between 1951 and 1963, 390 nuclear bombs were exploded above the ground, 205 by the US, 160 by the former Soviet Union, 21 by Britain and four by France.
The fall-out from these explosions circulated the globe and exposed the world's population to radioactivity. Scientists have long assumed that this would result in extra cancers, but until now no government has tried to estimate how many.
The new report concludes that the number of fatal cancers attributable to global fall-out amongst Americans alive between 1951 and 2000 is 11,000. This includes deaths from leukaemia caused by exposure to strontium 90 and from a host of other cancers triggered by other isotopes.
"This is a useful estimate of the long term effects of global fall-out on the population of the US, but it is only part of the story," says Dudley Goodhead, a leading radiation specialist with the Medical Research Council in Harwell, UK.
"Similar assumptions would lead to estimates of many thousands more cancers throughout the world because fall-out from the atmospheric tests was distributed globally," he notes.
The sites where bombs were exploded included the Nevada desert in the US, Pacific islands and sites in Kazakhstan and Russia. Atmospheric testing was outlawed by the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, although dozens of atmospheric tests have since been conducted by France and China.
The DHSS report, which was obtained by US senator Tom Harken, does not take fall-out from explosions since 1963 into account. Nor does it include fall-out from the seven atmospheric explosions detonated by the US prior to 1951 such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The estimate of 11,000 fatal cancers also does not include internal radiation exposure caused by the breathing in or swallowing of radioactive particles. Because of this, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in Takoma Park, Maryland, argues that the actual number of fatal cancers could be 17,000.
The US evidence is likely to provoke demands for other countries to face up to the death toll from nuclear tests. "It's a horrific legacy," says Sue Roff, a radiation researcher from the University of Dundee medical school. "The complacency of governments about acceptable levels of environmental radioactivity has been punctured by this authoritative report."