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U.S.A. Newborn Deterioration in the Nuclear Age, 1945-1996

By J.M. Gould, E.J. Sternglass, J.J. Mangano
The Radiation and Public Health Project


The Institut für Strahlenbiologie
(Institute of Radiation Biology)

Gesellschaft für Strahlenschutz e.V.
(Society for Radiation Protection)

in cooperation with
The Otto Hug Strahleninstitut
Medizinische Hilfsmaßnahmen e.V.

The Naturwissenschaftler Initiative "Verantwortung für den Frieden"

and IPPNW Germany

RPHP Series 1, Number 8


In 1983, the USA Congress asked the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to estimate the impact of fallout of radioactive iodine from the above-ground nuclear weapons exploded at the Nevada test site in the 1950s. After 14 years of study, NCI reported that perhaps 10,000 to 75,000 thyroid cancers could have resulted, particularly among children drinking contaminated milk in the Mountain states closest to the test site.

While there is no doubt that the very young were most vulnerable to the adverse health effects from weapons test fallout, the NCI study ignored the impact of fission products other than iodine, such as radioactive strontium and cesium, as well as fallout from tests of all other nations, and emissions from the operation of nuclear reactors. However, there are simple ways of calculating the number of excess infant deaths and underweight live births that can be attributed to chemical and radioactive pollutants released since 1945, the first year of the Nuclear Age.

The USA Department of Energy, under pressure from 27, 000 plaintiffs living downwind of the Hanford Nuclear Weapons facility, recently revealed that in 1945 the facility had released 550,000 curies of radioactive iodine-of the magnitude of the 1986 accident at Chernobyl-in the haste to produce plutonium for the first atomic bombs. In terms of picocuries, the unit in which radioactivity in milk and water is measured, this represents a huge potential exposure to the wartime USA population of 150 million, of the order of over 4 billion picocuries per-capita! 1  For the first two decades of the Nuclear Age, in addition to the as yet unestimated radioactive emissions from all DOE reactors engaged in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, we must consider the impact of all bomb tests, estimated by the Natural Resources Defense Council to be equivalent to exploding 40,000 above-ground Hiroshima bombs from 1945 to 1963. 2

In a 1969 article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists , E. J. Sternglass used a simple methodology to show that in the period 1935-50, USA infant mortality rates were declining on average by 4 percent per year. In the bomb-test 1950s, the annual rate of decline was so sharply diminished, that he estimated that the growing gap-between the observed rates and those expected if there had been no change in the rate of decline-was equivalent to 400,000 excess infant deaths in that decade. 3

Dr. John Gofman, then still head of the biomedical section of the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory, was asked by the Atomic Energy Commission to "refute" the Sternglass estimate. His associate Arthur Tamplin offered an alternative estimate of only 4,000 excess deaths, but this also proved unacceptable to the Atomic Energy Commission, reluctant to admit that nuclear fallout resulted in any harm to the newborn, leading to Gofman's resignation. Gofman later admitted that "new evidence suggests to me that Sternglass may have been right." 4

In figures 1 and 2 we have used the same methodology to compare the annual movements of the infant mortality rates from 1935 to 1996 in the USA and in Washington state.For the USA, the post 1950 gap between the observedand expected rates points to a cumulated excess ofabout one million infant deaths.

We are not arguing that all such excess deaths can be attributed solely to exposure to radioactive fallout. In Silent Spring , Rachel Carson noted in 1962 that all industrial chemicals become far more dangerous by interaction with strontium-90. Thus low-level radiation, by which we mean the extremely low-level internal radiation from the ingestion of man-made fission products, non-existent prior to 1945, can be regarded as we shall show, along with growing poverty and poor nutrition, as one of the most neglected environmental threats to the health of the very young.

In figure 2 we display the observed Washingtoninfant mortality rates from 1935 to 1996, contrasted with what the expected rates would have been if the 4 percent annual decline registered in the pre-nuclear 1935-50 period had persisted without change. What we see is an almost immediate divergence after 1945, possibly representing the effect of that enormous discharge in 1945, and then representing the combined impact of continuing Hanford releases and fallout from the Nevada Test site explosions from 1950 to 1963.

An enormous bulge characterizes the divergence of observed rates from the expected rates, a gap which can be found in every state in the USA. The Washington chart reveals the entire history of the impact of the Nuclear Age on the state that was hardest hit by its start in 1945. The state can therefore be seen to portray both the birth and death of the Nuclear Age in the USA.

No Hanford reactors have been operating since the 1970s. In very recent years, after the closing of the neighboring down-wind Trojan reactor near Portland, Oregon, in 1992, the infant mortality rate has dropped sharply to 5 deaths per 1000 live births. Washington has now become the first state in the union to finally achieve the optimum infant mortality rate that would have been reached if the 4 percent annual decline registered in the pre-nuclear period had persisted without interruption.

For Washington and for the USA as a whole, a roughly 4 percent annual decline in infant mortality rates had characterized the pre-nuclear period 1935-50 period, and probably for a much longer back period for which we have no records. For example, by 1900 about 90 percent of all newborns survived the first year, which is consistent with an average 4 percent annual infant mortality decline since colonial times, when contemporary accounts suggest that about half of all newborns did not survive birth. Thus the health benefits of developing a modern industrial society can be characterized by a systematic reduction of infant mortality to the point where today fewer than 10 out of 1000 live births fail to survive their first year. While the USA may finally be slowly achieving that goal, we must ask why the 4 percent average annual decline achieved in 1935-50 fell so sharply in the final half century.

Note that, by 1995, the expected USA rate would have been below 6 infant deaths per 1000 live births-which is close to the rate achieved by Japan, Denmark, and a few other favored nations-well below the observed USA 1995 rate of 8.7 infant deaths.

A more precise estimate of the postwar number of excess infant deaths associated with low-level radiation and other environmental pollutants can be made by analyzing the wealth of data on infant mortality rates available from each state Department of Health, broken down for each of some 3,000 counties for Whites and Non-whites. Non-white and Black infant mortality rates and low birthweight percentages are generally twice as high as those for Whites, so that states with heavy Black concentrations display the greatest gap between observed and expected infant mortality rates. Thus poor people with lack of prenatal care suffer disproportionately from exposure to both radioactive and chemical pollutants.

We include Appendix A, which gives graphs tracing the post-1950 deterioration in infant mortality rates in each of the 50 United States (excluding only Alaska, for which data are sparse). Graphs are arranged in geographic sequence, containing six graphs per image. This arrangement helps indicate that states in each geographic region tend to share a somewhat similar exposure to wind and rainfall fallout of both nuclear and chemical wastes, and proximity to reactors. But as indicated by the southern states with Black concentrations, poverty and poor nutrition also greatly contribute to newborn deterioration.

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1. Gould, J.M. The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors , New York, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996, p.38. (back)
2. Ibid , p.67. (back)
3. Sternglass, E.J., "Infant Mortality and Nuclear Tests," Bull. Atomic Scientists , 1969, 25:26-28. (back)
4. Freeman, L.J., Nuclear Witnesses, New York, W.W. Norton, 1981, p.93. (back)