In the past couple of weeks, there have been two big news stories about the damage that nuclear weapons programs have done to people, one in India, the other in the United States. I find these stories enormously frustrating.
It’s a great narrative line, with a moral purpose. Nuclear weapons do terrible things. We would like to see a peaceful world that doesn’t need them. So making them must be a bad thing that has other bad effects. Unfortunately, the last isn’t always well demonstrated or reported. I find it frustrating to read these articles, because they seldom have the information necessary to understand what is going on. Beyond the obligatory narrative line, the reporters often do not understand enough about radiation or epidemiology to interpret their materials.
Their point – that people have been damaged – gets across. Damaged people are observed and quoted. Numbers are given or implied. And the moral narrative prevails, along with fears.
The factual baseline: In the United States, forty per cent of us will develop cancer at some time in our lives, and twenty per cent will die from it. That is outside of nuclear weapons programs, just from living and going about our daily business. We don’t know all the causes. Possibilities include smoking; radiation from natural, medical, industrial, or weapons-manufacturing sources; industrial chemicals; natural chemicals that we eat (celery and parsnips can be mentioned, but they are not alone); genetic propensities to mistakes in our natural cellular processes; other things we don’t yet know, and combinations of all of the above.
It is seldom possible to know exactly what caused a particular cancer. It is also difficult to tease out the effect on a population from that forty per cent baseline rate, which varies by a few per cent from one place to another and over time.
There have been negligent practices in the nuclear weapons programs. They came from urgency in weapons programs and the desire to save money, along with safety procedures developed on the fly.
When I see that reporters have basic concepts wrong, though, I wonder how much else is hidden in notes that got things wrong and then were written to fit the narrative line. And then I dismiss the story, with the uneasy feeling that there may be something behind it, although I don’t know what.
The United States story is somewhat better reported than the one about India. But it starts off with a summary that cites a compensation program that, if it’s the one I’m aware of, compensates workers for several types of cancer, irrespective of cause. I suspect the program was structured that way to include the cancers that may have been radiation-caused but to avoid litigating every case of cancer in every former employee, which would have cost much, much more. So the inference that the numbers of cases of cancer from that program are all due to industrial exposures is incorrect. The number of people who have died may have something to do with their ages. The US program started in the 1940s; people in their twenties then who are still alive are in their nineties now.
Both stories also follow the standard news practice of finding individuals with particularly vivid stories to stand for the group.
There are many problematic aspects to the Indian story. They start in the third paragraph.
When Ghosh’s team seven years ago collected samples from the river and also from adjacent wells, he was alarmed by the results. The water was adulterated with radioactive alpha particles that cannot be absorbed through the skin or clothes, but if ingested cause 1,000 times more damage than other types of radiation. In some places, the levels were 160 percent higher than safe limits set by the World Health Organization.
Ghosh is a university physicist who presumably knows what he was doing. What he found was not free “radioactive alpha particles.” Presumably he measured a level of alpha radiation coming from radionuclides (unstable elements) in the water. Alpha particles exist for less than seconds after they are emitted by those radionuclides. They cannot penetrate skin or clothes, and ingesting alpha emitters is likely to be damaging to health. The reporter has garbled those facts to produce a paragraph that makes no sense. It is not clear what is “160 percent higher” (presumably the radionuclides) or whether what is meant is 1.6 times the limit or 2.6 times the limit. Percentages are frequently used incorrectly, and the garbling of the other information undermines my willingness to take the reporter’s word.
The word “toxic” is liberally scattered throughout the article. It’s a word that originally meant naturally occurring harmful substances, but it’s been stretched a lot. I would use it only when I knew something was seriously damaging to health, but it’s in the YMMV category now. “Radiation” also continues to appear unhinged from physical emitters. The reporter seems to believe it’s a miasma or ghost, pervasive and damaging, mysteriously appearing out of nowhere but somehow associated with the mining.
The Indian nuclear authorities say no damage has been done. The people living along the river wonder whether the mining upstream has caused a wide variety of ill effects – infertility, cancer, birth defects. They are poor people, and there are other influences that can cause those ill effects. The article has no way of separating those influences, and it implies that they must be from radiation. Extensive epidemiological studies would be necessary to separate them, and those studies are unlikely to be done for poor rural people.
Mining of anything can be devastating. The article mentions that the area has seen gold mining, in which miners use mercury to refine the gold, leaving it in the streams. What damage has that done to people’s health? Not mentioned in the article.
“Cancer clusters” – a scare phrase that implies causality. The National Cancer Institute points out that most cancer clusters turn out to be random, although some are indicative of a single cause.
Although science-fiction movies and novels have popularized the idea that radiation commonly results in malformed offspring and mutations, the most extensive continuing US study has found that untrue. If the villages are experiencing increases in birth defects, they may be from metals and processing chemicals in the water, the alcoholism that the government mentions, or a combination of all those factors.
Studies of the area and people’s health are mentioned in the article, but not enough information is given to understand what was done or how they were done. Those are important to understanding the validity and applicability of the studies; I’m not content to take the word of a reporter who does not understand what radiation is or elementary statistical concepts.
It sounds like the tailings ponds from the mining and milling are poorly managed, and miners were not well protected. It does indeed look like something should be done. Indigenous people have often suffered from mining. Unfortunately, my guess is that little will be done.
Articles like this bring attention to problems, but they also do damage. They perpetuate myths, stereotypes, and errors where they could educate the public. They rely on fear where they might illuminate what could be done. Factual errors in the article make it easier for the authorities to ignore. CPI has had particular problems lately in reporting on radioactive materials. Maybe it’s time for their reporters to take an elementary chemistry or physics course.
Photo of Indian villagers from the CPI article.