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Cold War Remnant: Cancer for Baby Boomers

5 years ago
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Even with a half-century's hindsight, the U.S. government's willingness to risk the health of the nation's children seems somewhere between unfathomable and unconscionable.

Between 1951 and 1962, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated more than 100 nuclear bombs in the atmosphere over its Nevada Test Site, just 65 miles from Las Vegas. The radioactive fallout menaced not only the ranchers and the miners unlucky enough to live in that remote area of southern Nevada, but -- as a new study unveiled Tuesday demonstrated -- untold millions of unsuspecting Americans as well.

The winds carried Strontium-90, Iodine-129 and other lethal particles across a broad swath of the country. Infants who were bottle-fed, which was then considered the modern approach, were particularly vulnerable to the Strontium-90 that ended up in cows' milk.

In 1961, as John Kennedy was poised to resume atmospheric testing after a two-year moratorium, he met with White House science adviser Jerome Wiesner in the Oval Office one rainy day. The president wondered how fallout reached the earth. Wiesner explained that it was washed out of the clouds by rain. "You mean," Kennedy asked, "it's in the rain out there?" As Wiesner tells it, the president then "looked out the window, looked very sad and didn't say a word for several minutes." Nonetheless JFK, fearful that the Soviet Union might score a nuclear breakthrough, authorized a new round of above-ground testing before negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

With Nov. 9, 2009 marking the 20th anniversary of the breaching of the Berlin Wall, Cold War retrospectives are again in season. But the grim legacy of nuclear testing is apt to be lost amid the memories of Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, the Berlin airlift, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Ronald Reagan's famed exhortation at the Brandenburg Gate. The mushroom clouds over the Nevada desert seem so long ago, so devoid of any real-world consequences.

But a study released Tuesday documents the enhanced cancer risk that Baby Boomers face because of these long-ago atmospheric tests. Epidemiologist Joseph Mangano analyzed the lingering radiation in infant teeth (donated long ago by the parents of baby boys born in the St. Louis area between 1959 and 1961) and compared the results to contemporary cancer data from the subjects. "What we found out was shocking," Mangano said. "Persons who had died of cancer had more than double the Strontium-90 in their (baby) teeth than did healthy persons." The original variance in Strontium-90 levels among individuals, he explained, was caused by seemingly small factors such as how much milk expectant mothers drank, diet and the source of the municipal water supply.

So where did these teeth come from? In the late 1950s, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis collected teeth from about 300,000 children and chemically analyzed them to demonstrate the prevalence of nuclear fallout. Even though it contributed to public support for the Test Ban Treaty, the Washington University study had been all but forgotten. But in 2001 a biology professor at the university discovered 85,000 left-over teeth in tiny manila envelopes that had never been used in this Cold War research.

The 53-year-old Mangano, the executive director of the small anti-nuclear Radiation and Public Health Project, saw the potential to use these teeth to conduct a longitudinal study measuring the life-long effects from atmospheric testing. For reasons of simplicity and consistency, he initially limited himself to boys born during a two-year moratorium in testing (so only lingering fallout was measured) who had not been breast-fed. "This is the pay dirt right here," he said excitedly Tuesday. "All the 50 years of collecting teeth, discussing bombs tests and all, this is the payoff. The difference is statistically significant." Mangano's paper, which is slated to posted Wednesday on his organization's Web site, has been submitted to an academic journal where it will be subjected to peer review.

Accompanied by model and anti-nuclear activist Christie Brinkley, Mangano had planned to unveil his study at a Washington press conference in the Rayburn House Office Building. There was only one small public relations problem: I was the only reporter who showed up. So in between discussing cancer and Strontium-90, I found myself in the midst of a where-did-we-go-wrong therapy session featuring an earnest epidemiologist and an articulate and committed spokesmodel, whose bitter divorce has been tabloid fodder for weeks. "We'll have to do something celebrity heavy in Manhattan," Brinkley declared. "That's the only way to get media these days."

Mangano and Brinkley view this research as a cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear power. What fascinates me, however, is that 50 years ago, the angry scientists and the ban-the-bomb protesters were right – nuclear testing was dangerous for children and other living things. "Maybe at the beginning of bomb testing, people weren't sure how much this would spread across the globe," Mangano said. "But by the mid-1950s, after dozens of bombs had been tested, they noticed the radiation levels going up and up in the milk and the water. They knew that this was trouble."

American history is littered with examples of the government and powerful corporations callously jeopardizing the health and even the lives of the poor, the downtrodden and racial and ethnic minorities. But nuclear testing illustrates a much different lesson: we all share the same Earth. The rain that carried the radiation fell on the progeny of politicians and generals as well as the children of farm laborers and ditch-diggers. There was as much Strontium-90 in the milk fed to infants in wealthy suburbs as in the milk on sale in bodegas across the street from housing projects.

At the height of the late 1950s battle over atmospheric testing, super-hawk physicist Edward Teller scoffed at complaints that nuclear fallout was a danger worth contemplating. As Teller wrote, "The living organism is so complicated and the intertwining of cause and effect is so intricate that we may never know the biological effect of so small a cause as worldwide radiation." Radiation was never a "small" factor. And if Mangano's new study survives academic scrutiny, we may finally begin to understand the biological effects of those mushroom clouds over the Nevada desert.

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