Nuclear Testing and the Rise of Thyroid Cancers

According to a recent New York Times article, thyroid cancer in the U.S. has been on the rise for nearly 40 years.

The long-standing explanation that this is due to better diagnostics is no longer accepted. This also means that the impacts of radioactive iodine fallout from nuclear weapons testing and Chernobyl cannot be so readily ruled out.

With a half-life of 8.5 days, Iodine-131 rapidly contaminates air, vegetation and milk supplies. Because it is absorbed mostly in the body’s thyroid, radioactive iodine has been linked to thyroid cancer and other types of thyroid damage in humans for several decades. It takes about 90 days for the radioactivity of I-131 to diminish to very small levels. Thyroid cancer can have a latency period as long as 38 years.

According to the National Cancer Institute in 1992, about 150 million curies of radioactive iodine was released in open air from nuclear testing in Nevada, causing heavy contamination of the nation’s milk supplies from the early 1950’s to the early 1960’s. This is more than 20 times the amount estimated to have been released by the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986. At the time of open air testing, millions of children were drinking this contaminated milk.

In the early 1950s when radioactive fallout was over-exposing film in cardboard made with contaminated straw, the Eastman Kodak company secretly complained and was given routine warnings by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The public was never warned by the U.S. government about the dangers of consuming milk it was contaminating in its quest to amass a nuclear arsenal.

After the ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration established “Protective Action Guides” for Iodine-131 that triggered removal of dairy products from human consumption following nuclear accidents. Had these limits been in place during the open air nuclear testing in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the NCI study indicates that milk supplies would have had to be removed from the markets for months at a time.

The NCI admitted in testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1998, after an investigation by the U.S. Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, that it suppressed this study for 5 years. The NCI also conceded this may have caused as many as 212,000 excess thyroid cancers.

With trust in the U.S. government sinking like a stone, it’s time for greater transparency about the price paid for nuclear weapons. As former Senator John Glenn (D-OH), a staunch supporter of the military, warned, “What good is it to protect ourselves with nuclear weapons, if we poison our people in the process?”

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999.