Children in 24 counties most in Montana, Idaho and Utah got the highest exposures from Cold War bomb fallout, according to a National Cancer Institute study released Friday.
Those at highest risk for developing thyroid cancer: People exposed as young children from 1951 to 1958 in Montana’s Meagher County east of Helena; and in four central Idaho counties, Custer, Gem, Blaine and Lemhi.
Some 15 other Montana counties are on the list of top fallout “hot spots” - which also include populated Butte, Bozeman and Helena.
The cancer institute on Friday released a summary of its massive and controversial report, originally scheduled for publication in October, after details were leaked to the media last week.
In a copyright story last Thursday, The Spokesman-Review reported the study’s disturbing implications: up to 50,000 excess thyroid cancers in people, now middle-aged, who were exposed as children to the fallout from U.S. nuclear testing. Some 2,500 of those cancers would probably be fatal.
That projection was based on a recent internal U.S. Department of Energy review of the institute’s fallout data and its possible public health consequences.
In a media briefing Friday, NCI Director Dr. Richard Klausner said he’d had his own staff crunch the fallout data recently. Their estimate: 10,000 to 75,000 possible excess thyroid cancers.
That number would be in addition to the almost half a million cases of thyroid cancer that would normally occur among the 95 million Americans who were children during the 1950s blasts.
“The increase … from these very rough calculations, would be a maximum 10 (percent) to 15 percent increase,” Klausner said. “That is significant, that’s a lot of thyroid cancer.”
That analysis came from the NCI’s Dr. Elaine Ron - who has said in her publications that a 10-rad dose to a child’s tiny thyroid is enough to cause damage. That’s only th the iodine 131 dose to an undetermined number of children who drank fresh milk in some of the fallout hot spots.
Fallout contains other elements besides radioactive iodine, but the new study focuses only on iodine 131 and its possible risks to the thyroid gland.
Adults throughout the United States got an average 2-rad dose from 90 bomb tests, but children’s doses were far higher.
“It appears that only (people exposed as) children have significant potential risks as a result of this exposure,” Klausner said.
Today’s federal guidelines for nuclear accidents call on public health agencies to take protective actions - including removing iodine 131-tainted fresh milk from the market - when a 15-rad dose to the human thyroid is expected.
But during the Cold War, when bomb tests spread fallout throughout the country, there was no public warning and no withholding of the milk supply to protect children.
The Atomic Energy Commission told Americans in 1959 their average dose from the fallout was 0.2 to 0.4 rads - more than 100 times below the new average estimates for states in the West.
Iodine 131 “wasn’t thought to be hazardous” in the 1950s, said Dr. Bruce Wachholz, the NCI fallout study’s chief scientist and a former AEC official.
Now, the cancer institute is advising anyone who is concerned about possible health effects to get a thyroid exam from their doctor.
This week, Klausner asked a medical panel of the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the public health implications of the NCI study. That effort will take another six months.
About 30 percent of the estimated radiation-related cancers would already have been diagnosed in the 40 years since the blasts, Klausner said.
But that also leaves many undiagnosed cancers in people who didn’t know until this week that they may be at increased risk for the disease, critics said.
Nuclear watchdog groups and a South Dakota senator are calling for congressional hearings into whether there’s been a cover-up at NCI, which had assembled all the fallout data five years ago.
The delay is a major public health scandal because if people had known about the exposures earlier, they could have been screened for thyroid cancer, they say.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who has tried for months to get the NCI to release the study, called the institute’s long delay “a totally inexcusable breakdown in responsibility and communication.”
Daschle’s state includes a high-exposure area in Haakon County.
“It is a remarkable demonstration of either ineptitude or extraordinarily contrived efforts to withhold information,” said Daschle after the news stories about the NCI findings began to emerge in the past week.
“We need to find out why this information has existed for several years at NCI without state and federal public health officials being given the opportunity to act to protect the health of people in these areas,” said Tim Connor of Spokane, a member of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel that requested access to the fallout data a year ago. NCI did not give it to the CDC committee.
Klausner said he’d only recently become aware of the 14-year-old study, which has been directed by Wachholz since 1983, when he moved from DOE to the cancer institute.
Congress requested the NCI fallout study in 1983 to answer the question of how fallout affected the entire nation.
“I understand people would have hoped this would be released earlier and should have been speeded up. But I see no evidence of a cover-up,” Klausner said.
It’s been known for years that fallout in the small Utah towns downwind of the Nevada Test Site in southern Nevada exposed many children to significant radiation - up to 400 rads.
But it wasn’t known until this week that some children thousands of miles from the test site in the inland West had doses nearly as high as the Utah high-dose children.
Nuclear watchdog groups aimed a new blast of criticism Friday at the cancer institute.
A coalition that includes Physicians for Social Responsibility called for an investigation into “the circumstances surrounding the cover-up of this data.
“To this day, many details of the NCI study remain secret; no health care response is in place; and an investigation … has yet to be launched ” by the Clinton administration, the Military Production Network said in a statement.
The radiation released to the atmosphere from bomb fallout “was the equivalent of al least 10 Chernobyl accidents,” said attorney Cooper Brown of the National Committee for Radiation Victims in Washington, D.C.
The White House should issue “a clear and unambiguous alert and warning” about the health hazards, Brown said.
In recent years, the cancer institute has reported an overall increase in thyroid cancer, from 2.4 cancers per 100,000 population in 1947 to 3.9 cancers per 100,000 in 1971.
The increase has been particularly notable in the age group who “would have been children during the fallout years,” Brown said.
“One has to take seriously the proposition that the I-131 fallout would have resulted in significant adverse health effects for a large segment of the American public,” he said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Graphics: 1. Measuring the fallout 2. Thyroid cancer
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: MORE FALLOUT INFORMATION To see the results of the National Cancer Institute study that estimates thyroid doses of iodine 131 from fallout from the Nevada nuclear bombs tests, point your web browers to the address below: http://rex.nci.nih.gov/INTRFCE_GIFS/WHTNEW_INTR_DOC.htm