The controversy over a long-awaited national study of bomb test fallout and its effect on thyroid disease rates around the United States is escalating.
The National Cancer Institute study’s chief author said Thursday he has nothing to hide and will release the 14-year study by Oct. 1.
“No one wants it out any earlier than I do. If we can get it out before, we will,” said Bruce Wachholz, a radiation biologist who heads the institute’s radiation effects division.
A national coalition of doctors and nuclear watchdog groups has accused the cancer institute of a cover-up and asked two Cabinet secretaries to make the report’s county-by-county fallout data immediately available.
“Now, we face another situation in which government scientists have possessed evidence of significant public radiation risks - and done nothing. This is profoundly unacceptable,” the critics said in a prepared statement issued Wednesday.
Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Military Production Network, an alliance of groups working on nuclear issues that includes Spokane’s Hanford Education Action League, made the request.
The groups wrote to Energy Secretary Federico Pena and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.
In a story Thursday, The Spokesman-Review reported on the controversy over the massive study, the government’s first effort to provide detailed data on radiation doses from bomb fallout in nearly 3,100 U.S. counties from 1951 to 1958.
The few scientists outside the National Cancer Institute who’ve seen the data say the doses are surprisingly high - especially for infants and young children.
Wachholz agrees that many counties throughout the United States had exposures as high as those near the Nevada Test Site.
Children in some “hot spots” got thyroid doses in the hundreds of rad, similar to the highest-exposed children near the Nevada Test Site during the era of open-air bomb tests, Wachholz said in an interview Thursday.
But he disagrees with his critics, who have said the exposures may have caused tens of thousands of thyroid cancers.
The high radiation doses don’t necessarily mean fallout has caused an epidemic of thyroid cancer, Wachholz said.
He points to a Utah study of 2,473 children exposed to the bomb tests. Only a few had developed thyroid cancer the last time they were examined in 1985, he said.
The Utah study “raised the question mark, but not conclusively,” about the relationship between Iodine 131 exposure and cancer, he said.
Another Utah study, led by Dr. John Till of South Carolina, found an association between fallout exposure to Utah schoolchildren and elevated levels of thryoid tumors.
The NCI hasn’t decided whether to pay for further checkups of the Utah children tested 12 years ago, Wachholz said.
More recently, radiation scientists have grown alarmed by the escalation of thyroid cancers among children in the Ukraine and Belarus after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, Wachholz said.
“After Chernobyl, people began to worry about Iodine 131,” which wasn’t considered a major health threat in the 1950s, he said.
Wachholz’s group and the U.S. Department of Energy are paying for major international follow-up studies of the Chernobyl children.
Concern over Chernobyl’s health toll prompted Wachholz’s research group last fall to make a final push to finish their big U.S. fallout study.
“We had delayed too long already,” Wachholz said.
But delay doesn’t mean a cover-up, as his critics maintain, he said.
“I regret that people think about it in those terms. We’re getting the study out as fast as we can. It will be of great interest to state health authorities,” he said.
The data released this fall will include doses to people from infancy to old age and also will include information on the highest-risk counties.
“To go back and do all this with 40 years’ hindsight has been a time-consuming effort,” Wachholz said.
The institute has let too much time elapse, according to the nuclear activists.
Other public health agencies are acting to protect people who have been exposed to 10 rad of radiation - the dose that doubles lifetime thyroid cancer risk, the activists said.
They point to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal agency proposing medical checkups for 14,000 people exposed as children to Hanford radiation releases and who got an estimated dose of 10 rad or more.
NCI researchers should have acted at once to encourage people to get their thyroids checked, when they knew of ” numerous fallout hot spots across the nation,” the watchdog groups said.
The delay is “troublesome” after DOE’s recent apologies for past nuclear secrecy, they said in their statement. “An apology was made, and lessons were supposedly learned and put into place.”