Blowin' in the Wind


Washington.--Will the disclosure of releases of radiation from nuclear-weapon production facilities result in thousands, perhaps even millions of cancer victims seeking compensation from the government?

The chances certainly increased with Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's announcement that the federal government had conducted radiation-exposure experiments with unsuspecting subjects, and that payouts might be in order. Many Americans who have lived downwind from nuclear-weapon production complexes and are ill can be expected to line up with the experiment subjects if a compensation program is established.

Such a program would have to develop guidelines for determining who gets what. Otherwise, there would be no formula for separating legitimate from unjustified claims, a formidable enough differentiation under any conditions. The linkage between exposure and the incidence of cancer and other radiation-related diseases is rarely certain; it depends largely on anecdotal evidence.

Some precedent exists. Washington compensated the Marshall Islanders for personal injury and property damage resulting from nuclear testing in the South Pacific during the 1950s.

Several years ago, Congress concluded that there was a statistically significant correlation between radiation exposure and cancer outbreaks in Arizona, Nevada and Utah among persons living downwind from atomic-bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s. Complainants had to prove they resided in certain counties for at least two years between 1951 and 1958, or for the entire year of 1962. They also had to demonstrate that they were suffering from one of several specific types of cancers deemed most likely to be caused by above-normal exposures to low-level radiation. If they were able to do so, the legislation entitled each -- of them to $50,000 in compensation.

Should Congress decide to follow suit with those downwind from nuclear-weapon production facilities and other radiation-release points, the claimants' location, age at exposure and when stricken, dosage and duration of exposure, interval between exposure and onset of cancer, kind of cancer, personal habits and socio-economic status would all be factored into the determination of whether compensation was warranted.

Unfortunately, much of the data necessary to make these judgments have not been made available by the government, and in some instances, don't exist. Official files should be released immediately and further epidemiological studies conducted.

Since the duration between radiation exposure and cancer make cause and effect difficult to prove conclusively, skeptics charge that the danger is grossly overblown by environmentalist "doomsayers." They note that natural radiation is all around us, and that certain federal studies showed no increased incidence of cancer in nuclear-plant workers and downwinders.

But other government and independent studies reveal a striking association between exposure and adverse health effects. These include thyroid damage downwind from the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington and a rare bone cancer among persons who worked on the atomic bomb's creation in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1944.

The contradictory government studies cited by skeptics were reviewed by medical scientists from the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility and found to be seriously flawed.

Among the defects: the sampling of exposed workers was too small to prove anything; the studies often don't track subjects for the long latency period between exposure and onset of cancer, and sometimes the focus was on people who had little or no exposure. Other government data misled by recording deaths, but not incidence of disease. Finally, the studies rarely took into account the "healthy-worker effect." A work force at a nuclear-production plant is usually in better shape, more affluent, with better access to medical care than the rest of the population.

To the argument that the radiation emitted from nuclear-weapon production factories has a half life of only eight days, the Physicians for Social Responsibility respond that eight days is more than enough time for long-term medical damage to be sustained. The report concludes that "there is a steadily growing body of troubling and disturbing findings which are not definitive, but call for urgent, expanded and independent investigation."

More epidemiological studies and consolidation of data are essential, not to verify what clearly is a reality, but to identify victims who merit federal compensation.

Edward Flattau writes a column on environmental matters.

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