Covering Up an Ill Wind From China

by Lorna Salzman

Evidence is accumulating of a massive cover-up of information on the radioactive fallout from Chinese nuclear weapons tests and of the serious health effects that will result from ingestion of milk contaminated with iodine-131 and strontium-90. The culprits? Some of the most powerful agencies in the federal government–the State Department the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration.

At least two separate fallout clouds dropped their lethal loads of radioisotopes of these elements (as well as cesium-137 and plutonium-239) on the Northeast in early October in heavy rains, where cows grazing on contaminated pasturage passed it along the food chain to people, who reconcentrated it in the thyroid gland and bones. Milk samples in some Long Island dairies with radioactivity levels as high as 480 picocuries convinced health authorities to order cows put on stored feed. That was over three times the levels of iodine-131 measured in New York milk in 1962 and 1963 just before atmospheric testing ended.

The EPA continues to perpetuate the dangerous myth that existing levels of iodine in milk are safe and that no action is required until levels reach 4,200 picocuries. But the agency conveniently forgets that while atmospheric testing went on in the late 1950s and 1960s, the protective action level was set at 100 picocuries per liter. This was later raised by executive order in 1964 to 4,200 picocuries because testing had ended. And this higher level is still being used.

But according to radiological physicist Ernest Sternglass, of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, a fetus whose mother drinks a quart of milk daily for the three months following a peak concentration of 4,200 picocuries, and with levels dropping off after that each day due to radioactive decay, would get a cumulative dose to the thyroid of 30 rads–20 times the maximum permissible annual dose to the thyroid of 1.5 rads. (The dose to an adult, however, would be less serious.)

Using government figures of 2 to 3 rads as the doubling dose for thyroid and other cancers, a 30-rad dose would thus increase the number of cancers by 1,000 to 1,500 percent. Using the 100 picocurie protective action level, cancers would increase by as much as 75 percent. In Pennsylvania, the state agricultural department was prepared, on the advice of the state radiologist, to take protective action at 100 picocuries but inexplicably raised the action level to 500.

Adding insult to injury John Matuszek, head of the New York State Radiological Sciences Laboratory of the Bureau of Radiological Health, said that "there will be no observable health effects at these levels" and that "the fetus is not at risk at the levels we have seen." That view directly contradicts a National Academy of Sciences report of 1972 that says no level of radiation is safe, that health effects increase directly proportional to dosage, that there is no threshold below which effects do not occur, and that exposure to radiation is to be avoided or minimized when possible. The academy's policy has been fortified more recently by the views of Karl Z. Morgan, formerly of the Atomic Energy Commission laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn, and a leading radiological health expert, who recommends that radiation standards be reduced by a factor of 200.

Thus far the United States has made no formal protest to either China or the UN, and as a result of the government's failure to either warn or take action to protect the American public from the effects of iodine and strontium ingestion, there will be a statistically certain increase in infant mortality, cancers and other sub-lethal illnesses. Meanwhile, the government continues to churn out official press releases in the same soothing tone. It all indicates that, as usual, political considerations are being put ahead of public health safety.

It is important to recognize two things. First, when scientists say that fallout levels or radioactive leak from nuclear power plants do not exceed federal standards, this is because these standards are set high enough so they do not hinder the project or facility releasing the radioactivity. They are also set high in order to be, as a Brookhaven National Laboratory spokesman recently put it, "manageable," that is, enforceable. Second, it seems clear that the concerted efforts to play down the hazards of fallout and low-level radiation are a kind of brainwashing, much like the bomb shelter propaganda of the 1950's, which is intended to induce the public, into accepting radioactivity as part of daily life. In both these respects, federal, state and scientific personnel associated with all aspects of nuclear weapons, power or research have a tacit agreement not to alert or alarm the public.

In the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate and revelations about the unconstitutional actions of the CIA and FBI, it is all the more important that the public scrutinize government statements with an eagle eye, keeping in mind the fact that they can no longer trust government agencies to defend their right to health and life itself.

Source: Newsday, October 25, 1976.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.