Below is a transcript of radio commentary that aired February 17, 2003 on KUNM public radio 89.9 fm in Albuquerque
I’m Arjun Makhijani with the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. This week’s commentary is about the milk that Americans drank in the 1950s. Why should you be interested in this part of people’s diets so long ago? Well, much of the milk was radioactive – contaminated by fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. It’s a dreadful story with its very own Kodak moment. It’s worth remembering now, as the nuclear weapons establishment gets set to start building a huge new nuclear bomb plant, called the Modern Pit Facility which may be built in New Mexico, Texas, South Carolina or Nevada.
In 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Defense Department began atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site, north of Las Vegas. One of the radioactive components of the fallout was iodine-131, which is a very radioactive material. By 1953, the nuclear establishment knew that the iodine-131 was contaminating much of the milk supply of the country. Children were especially affected since their growing thyroids need a lot of iodine, which is an essential element in the hormone that the thyroid gland produces.
So radioactive iodine also got absorbed by the thyroids of children, increasing the risk of thyroid cancer, other thyroid diseases and developmental disorders, especially in areas with high fallout and high milk consumption. The highest doses were to farm children in hot spot areas, to families who thought they were living especially healthy lives. Exposed girl children have twice the risk of getting thyroid cancer as boys.
In 1997, the National Cancer Institute published a study showing hot spots that spread across the country, from Idaho, Utah and Montana to Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri to New York, New Hampshire, and Maine. The government has so far done nothing to find and warn the most highly exposed people of continuing cancer risk. That’s important because the latency period is sometimes long. It has not alerted doctors and other medical personnel to possible problems arising from the exposure, even though it estimates that the iodine-131 would cause about 50,000 cancers, about 2,500 of which would be fatal.
The nuclear weapons establishment failed to protect the country’s milk supply, but it did help Kodak to protect its film supply. Fallout in film packaging material was causing its film to become fogged. Kodak threatened to sue. To forestall the suit, the AEC provided secret data about expected fallout patterns to Kodak and other film manufacturers, enabling them to protect their products.
You can find more information on this sorry episode in the nuclear establishment’s past on the website of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. This is Arjun Makhijani.
Read related article “Let Them Drink Milk,” in Science for Democratic Action, Volume 6, Issue 2 (1997).