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The Doomsday Spin : Tales of radioation tests seem to prove every citizen's worst nightmare about government.

January 09, 1994|GREGG EASTERBROOK | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly. His book on the historical significance of environmentalism, "A Moment on the Earth," will be published by Viking Penguin

The revelation could not have been more shocking: In 1945, Eda Charlton, a seamstress who checked into a Rochester, N.Y., hospital for routine care, was, without her knowledge, injected with plutonium as part of a secret Manhattan Project program to test the effects of radiation on human beings. By the time she died in 1983, at age 85, Charlton had never been told the truth. Her children only recently learned the full details, when disclosures of secret tests of radioactivity on unsuspecting citizens became a leading news event.

Since any medical test performed without informed consent is an abomination, government mistreatment of Charlton was an outrage; as were radiation tests staged, the Department of Energy admitted last month, on an estimated 800 additional Americans during the 1940s and 1950s with no meaningful approval from the subjects. Public anger about government duplicity and violation of rights is amply justified.

But to maximize the instant-doomsday spin, the current controversy is skipping over an inconvenient little complication: Hardly any actual harm was done, because the exposures involved were to extremely low levels of radiation. What's really going on in the radiation testing controversy? Consider several aspects.

After the story broke, the Washington Post, reflecting the conventional wisdom, declared plutonium to be so dangerous that "human contact with even one particle is guaranteed to cause cancer." Yet, Charlton was injected with far more and lived an additional four decades--some 30 years longer than statistical expectancy for a white woman of her birth year. And when she died, it was due to a heart attack--not cancer.

News reports focus on the violation of Charlton's rights and the scary facts of the experiment--without mentioning the dose was incredibly tiny. Charlton received one-third of a microcurie of plutonium. A microcurie is millionth of a curie: One-third of a microcurie is far less radiation than caused by the new low-dose X-ray machines.

A common assertion in instant-doomsday literature is that plutonium has an almost mystical hyper-toxicity. No one doubts plutonium is extremely dangerous. But if what the Charlton case shows is that plutonium is just another dangerous substance that must be controlled, this would be terrible news to instant-doomsday orthodoxy.

Similarly, many commentators now suggest that shocking horrors occurred when radiation was released in the 1940s and 1950s from the federal nuclear-bomb production plant at Hanford, Wash., a facility that had minimal environmental safeguards in the Cold War years, and, though now closed, still suffers from ecological blunders during its cleanup. Hanford releases are now regularly described in news accounts as "hundreds of times worse than Three Mile Island."

This is true--but it tells more about the smallness of the Three Mile Island release than anything else. Average exposure downwind of Three Mile Island was about 10 millirems--or about 3% of the average annual background level of 360 millirems that Americans receive from natural sources.

Researchers have been studying the workers and 270,000 downwind residents of Hanford for seven years and, so far, have found "no firm evidence that any of the releases harmed human health," the technical journal, Science, reported last week.

The English researcher Alice Stewart, a leading authority on radiation, has studied Hanford workers from the Cold War years--workers being far more directly exposed than residents downwind. Stewart found they have, so far, experienced slightly less cancer than typical for Washington state. To my knowledge, none of the many news accounts about Hanford have mentioned Stewart's work.

These new radiation stories resonate because the government has a history of lying about early Cold War atomic abuses. Federal officials have long denied the truth about severe health damage suffered in the 1940s and 1950s by uranium miners, mainly Navajo Indians, who worked under subhuman conditions; officials lied for years about the harm suffered by people living downwind of 1950s open-air nuclear tests and by soldiers deliberately exposed to fallout from atomic tests.

This history of federal lies about radiation abuses during the 1950s inclines commentators and the public to assume the worst about any new disclosure. Such an assumption is wise, for federal credibility on atomic matters is low to nonexistent.

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