Atomic Bomb Testing Fallout
Likely Caused 15,000 Deaths


WASHINGTON - Radioactive fallout from Cold War nuclear weapons tests across the globe probably caused at least 15,000 cancer deaths in U.S. residents born after 1951, according to data from an unreleased federal study.
The study, coupled with findings from previous government investigations, suggests that 20,000 non-fatal cancers -- and possibly many more -- also can be tied to fallout from aboveground weapons tests.
The study shows that far more fallout than previously known reached the USA from nuclear tests in the former Soviet Union and on several Pacific islands used for U.S. and British exercises. It also finds that fallout from scores of U.S. trials at the Nevada Test Site spread substantial amounts of radioactivity across broad swaths of the country. When fallout from all tests, domestic and foreign, is taken together, no U.S. resident born after 1951 escaped exposure, the study says.
The study is the government's first effort to assess the nationwide effects of all forms of radiation from the hundreds of aboveground nuclear blasts detonated worldwide before such testing was banned in 1963. The cancer estimates add a new human toll to the Cold War and raise profound public policy questions, including whether the government should do cancer screenings in high-fallout areas.
USA TODAY obtained portions of the study, which was supposed to be finished more than a year ago.
''There should be no more waiting,'' says Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who pushed the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct the study in 1998. ''People are still waiting for real communication on their exposure risks and steps they can take.''
The study's estimates of radiation dispersal are based on complex computer analyses of weather patterns, population trends and other data that can help gauge public exposure to fallout from aboveground nuclear tests.

The cancer figures are a general nationwide estimate -- there is no way to link specific cases to fallout. The study does not assess cancer risks in other countries.

The data show that global fallout blanketed much of the USA, with heavy pockets in Iowa, Tennessee, California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Fallout from the Nevada tests settled more in the mountain and Midwest states, including Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.

The study measures exposure to an array of fallout elements based on county of residence, birth date and factors such as consumption of foods that absorb fallout.

It concludes that about 22,000 cancers, half of them fatal, probably occurred from external exposure to radioactive fallout. Those could include everything from melanoma to breast cancer.

The study attributes thousands of additional cancers to internal radiation exposure, such as inhalation or eating tainted food. Those cancers include at least 550 fatal leukemias and about 2,500 thyroid cancer deaths.

Nuclear weapons powers ''owe the world a real accounting of what they did to its health,'' says Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. ''The U.S. has been the only honest country so far.''
Copyright © 2002 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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