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#691 - The Major Cause of Cancer--Part 1, March 16, 2000

The Major Cause of Cancer--Part 1 [Rachel's will be published next on April
13.] When Wilhelm Roentgen first discovered X-rays, in 1895, "doctors and
physicians saw the practical potential of X-rays at once, and rushed to experiment
with them."[1,pg.7] Many physicians built their own X-ray equipment, with
mixed results: some home-brew X-ray machines produced no radiation whatsoever,
others produced enough to irradiate everyone in the next room.

The ability to see inside the human body for the first time was a marvelous,
mysterious and deeply provocative discovery. Roentgen trained X-rays on his
wife's hand for 15 minutes, producing a macabre image of the bones of her hand
adorned by her wedding ring. Roentgen's biographer, Otto Glasser, says Mrs.
Roentgen "could hardly believe that this bony hand was her own and shuddered
at the thought that she was seeing her skeleton. To Mrs. Roentgen, as to many
others later, this experience gave a vague premonition of death," Glasser

Within a year, by 1896, physicians were using X-rays for diagnosis and as a
new way of gathering evidence to protect themselves against malpractice suits.
Almost immediately --during 1895- 96 -- it also became clear that X-rays could
cause serious medical problems. Some physicians received burns that wouldn't
heal, requiring amputation of their fingers. Others developed fatal cancers.

At that time, antibiotics had not yet been discovered, so physicians had only
a small number of treatments they could offer their patients; X-rays gave them
a range of new procedures that were very "high tech" -- bordering
on the miraculous -- and which seemed to hold out promise to the sick. Thus
the medical world embraced these mysterious, invisible rays with great enthusiasm.
Understandably, physicians at the time often thought they observed therapeutic
benefits where controlled experiments today find none.

At that time -- just prior to 1920 -- the editor of AMERICAN X-RAY JOURNAL
said "there are about 100 named diseases that yield favorably to X-ray
treatment." In her informative history of the technology, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES;
CHRONICLES OF THE RADIATION AGE, Catherine Caufield (see REHW #200, #201, #202),
comments on this period: "Radiation treatment for benign [non-cancer] diseases
became a medical craze that lasted for 40 or more years."[1,pg.15] "...[L]arge
groups of people [were] needlessly irradiated for such minor problems as ringworm
and acne.... Many women had their ovaries irradiated as a treatment for depression."[1,pg.15]
Such uses of X-rays would today be viewed as quackery, but many of them were
accepted medical practice into the 1950s. Physicians weren't the only ones enthusiastic
about X-ray therapies. If you get a large enough dose of X-rays your hair falls
out, so "beauty shops installed X-ray equipment to remove their customers'
unwanted facial and body hair," Catherine Caufield reports.[1,pg.15]

Roentgen's discovery of X-rays in 1895 led directly to Henri Becquerel's discovery
of the radioactivity of uranium in 1896 and then to the discovery of radium
by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in 1898, for which Becquerel and the Curies
were jointly awarded the Nobel prize in 1903. (Twenty years later Madame Curie
would die of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.)

Soon radioactive radium was being prescribed by physicians alongside X-rays.
Radium treatments were prescribed for heart trouble, impotence, ulcers, depression,
arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, blindness and tuberculosis, among other
ailments. Soon radioactive toothpaste was being marketed, then radioactive skin
cream. In Germany, chocolate bars containing radium were sold as a "rejuvenator."[1,pg.28]
In the U.S, hundreds of thousands of people began drinking bottled water laced
with radium, as a general elixir known popularly as "liquid sunshine."
As recently as 1952 LIFE magazine wrote about the beneficial effects of inhaling
radioactive radon gas in deep mines. Even today The Merry Widow Health Mine
near Butte, Montana and the Sunshine Radon Health Mine nearby advertise that
visitors to the mines report multiple benefits from inhaling radioactive radon,[2]
even though numerous studies now indicate that the only demonstrable health
effect of radon gas is lung cancer.

Thus the medical world and popular culture together embraced X-rays (and other
radioactive emanations) as miraculous remedies, gifts to humanity from the foremost
geniuses of an inventive age.

In the popular imagination, these technologies suffered a serious setback when
atomic bombs were detonated over Japan in 1945. Even though the A-bombs arguably
shortened WW II and saved American lives, John Hersey's description of the human
devastation in HIROSHIMA forever imprinted the mushroom cloud in the popular
mind as an omen of unutterable ruin. Despite substantial efforts to cast The
Bomb in a positive light, radiation technology would never recover the luster
it had gained before WW II.

Seven years after A-bombs were used in war, Dwight Eisenhower set the U.S.
government on a new course, intended to show the world that nuclear weapons,
radioactivity and radiation were not harbingers of death but were in fact powerful,
benign servants offering almost-limitless benefits to humankind. The "Atoms
for Peace" program was born, explicitly aimed at convincing Americans and
the world that these new technologies were full of hope, and that nuclear power
reactors should be developed with tax dollars to generate electricity. The promise
of this newest technical advance seemed too good to be true -- electricity "too
cheap to meter."[3]

The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission
but as a practical matter the nation's top military commanders maintained close
control over the development of all nuclear technologies.[4]

Thus by a series of historical accidents, all of the major sources of ionizing
radiation fell under the purview of people and institutions who had no reason
to want to explore the early knowledge that radiation was harmful. In 1927,
Hermann J. Muller had demonstrated that X-rays caused inheritable genetic damage,
and he received a Nobel prize for his efforts. However, he had performed his
experiments on fruit flies and it was easy, or at least convenient, to dismiss
his findings as irrelevant to humans.

In sum, to physicians, radiation seemed a promising new therapy for treating
nearly every ailment under the sun; for the military and the Joint Commmission
on Atomic Energy in Congress it unleashed hundreds of billions of dollars, a
veritable flood of taxpayer funds, most of which came with almost no oversight
because of official secrecy surrounding weapons development; and for private-sector
government contractors like Union Carbide, Monsanto Chemical Co., General Electric,
Bechtel Corporation, DuPont, Martin Marietta and others -- it meant an opportunity
to join the elite "military-industrial complex" whose growing political
power President Eisenhower warned against in his final address to Congress in

Throughout the 1950s the military detonated A-bombs above-ground at the Nevada
Test Site, showering downwind civilian populations with radioactivity.[5] At
the Hanford Reservation in Washington state, technicians intentionally released
huge clouds of radioactivity to see what would happen to the human populations
thus exposed. In one Hanford experiment 500,000 Curies of radioactive iodine
were released; iodine collects in the human thyroid gland. The victims of this
experiment, mostly Native Americans, were not told about it for 45 years.[6,pg.96]
American sailors on ships and soldiers on the ground were exposed to large doses
of radioactivity just to see what would happen to them. The military brass insisted
that being showered with radiation is harmless. In his autobiography, Karl Z.
Morgan, who served as radiation safety director at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
(Clinton, Tennessee) from 1944 to 1971, recalls that, "The Veterans Administration
seems always on the defensive to make sure the victims are not compensated."[6,pg.101]
Morgan recounts the story of John D. Smitherman, a Navy man who received large
doses of radiation during A-bomb experiments on Bikini Atoll in 1946. Morgan
writes, "The Veterans Administration denied any connection to radiation
exposure until 1988, when it had awarded his widow benefits. By the time of
his death, Smitherman's body was almost consumed by cancers of the lung, bronchial
lymph nodes, diaphragm, spleen, pancreas, intestines, stomach, liver, and adrenal
glands. In 1989, a year after it had awarded the benefits, the VA revoked them
from Smitherman's widow."[6,pg.101]

Starting in the 1940s and continuing into the 1960s, thousands of uranium miners
were told that breathing radon gas in the uranium mines of New Mexico was perfectly
safe. Only now are the radon-caused lung cancers being tallied up, as the truth
leaks out 50 years too late.

In retrospect, a kind of nuclear mania swept the industrial world. What biotechnology
and high-tech computers are today, atomic technology was in the 1950s and early
1960s. Government contractors spent billions to develop a nuclear-powered airplane
-- even though simple engineering calculations told them early in the project
that such a plane would be too heavy to carry a useful cargo.[4,pg.204] Monsanto
Research Corporation proposed a plutonium-powered coffee pot that would boil
water for 100 years without a refueling.[4,pg.227] A Boston company proposed
cufflinks made of radioactive uranium for the simple reason that uranium is
heavier than lead and "the unusual weight prevents cuffs from riding up."[4,pg.227]

In 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission established its Plowshare Division --
named of course for the Biblical "swords into plowshares" phrasing
in Isaiah (2:4).[4,pg.231] Our government and its industrial partners were determined
to show the world that this technology was benign, no matter what the facts
might be. On July 14, 1958, Dr. Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, arrived
in Alaska to announce Project Chariot, a plan to carve a new harbor out of the
Alaska coast by detonating up to six H-bombs. After a tremendous political fight
-- documented in Dan O'Neill's book, THE FIRECRACKER BOYS[7] -- the plan was
shelved. Another plan was developed to blast a new canal across Central America
with atomic bombs, simply to give the U.S. some leverage in negotiating with
Panama over control of the Panama Canal. That plan, too, was scrapped. In 1967,
an A-bomb was detonated underground in New Mexico, to release natural gas trapped
in shale rock formations. Trapped gas was in fact released, but -- as the project's
engineers should have been able to predict -- the gas turned out to be radioactive
so the hole in the ground was plugged and a bronze plaque in the desert is all
that remains visible of Project Gasbuggy.[4,pg.236]

In sum, according to NEW YORK TIMES columnist H. Peter Metzger, the Atomic
Energy Commission wasted billions of dollars on "crackpot schemes,"
all for the purpose of proving that nuclear technology is beneficial and not
in any way harmful.[4,pg.237]

The Plowshare Division may have been a complete failure, but one lasting result
emerged from all these efforts: A powerful culture of denial sunk deep roots
into the heart of scientific and industrial America.

[To be continued April 13.]

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


(New York: Harper & Row, 1989). ISBN 0-06-015900-6.

[2] Jim Robbins, "Camping Out in the Merry Widow Mine," HIGH COUNTRY
NEWS Vol. 26, No. 12 (June 27, 1994), pgs. unknown. See http://www.hcn.org/1994/jun27/dir/reporters.html.
And see http://www.roadsideamerica.com/attract/MTBASradon.html

[3] Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska, THE NUCLEAR POWER DECEPTION; U.S. NUCLEAR
SAFE" REACTORS (New York: The Apex Press, 1999). ISBN 0-945257-75-9.

[4] H. Peter Metzger, THE ATOMIC ESTABLISHMENT (New York: Simon & Schuster,
1972). ISBN 671-21351-2.

[5] Michael D'Antonio, ATOMIC HARVEST (New York: Crown Publishers, 1993). ISBN
0-517-58981-8. And: Chip Ward, Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West
(New York: Verso, 1999). ISBN 1859847501.

[6] Karl Z. Morgan and Ken M. Peterson, THE ANGRY GENIE; ONE MAN'S WALK THROUGH
THE NUCLEAR AGE (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999). ISBN

[7] Dan O'Neill, THE FIRECRACKER BOYS (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994).
ISBN 0-312-13416-9.

Descriptor terms: radiation; nuclear weapons; nuclear power; x-rays; cancer;
carcinogens; karl z. morgan; downwinders; nevada test site; hanford;

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  [Posted by Peter Montague on 12/2/2004] Reply to this message