Synthesis/Regeneration 10   (Spring 1996)

Radiation & Health in Communities Affected by Nuclear Contamination

Seth Tuler & Dianne Quigley, Childhood Cancer Research Institute

Humans are exposed to radiation from a number of sources, including fallout from nuclear weapons testing, atomic reactor emissions, mining and milling of uranium and other radioactive materials, creation and storage of nuclear wastes, transportation and use of radioactive materials in industry, medical x-rays, and concentration of radioactive substances in the food chain (e.g., Chernobyl) and groundwater.

While extensive contamination by radionuclides has been documented around Department of Energy (DOE) weapons laboratories, production, storage, and disposal sites, affected communities have had difficulty getting federal agencies to respond to their concerns, to study their full range of health and environmental concerns, and to allow meaningful public input into health studies. Moreover, many communities lack the public health infrastructure and resources to respond effectively to long-term impacts.

The Childhood Cancer Research Institute (CCRI) works with federal, state, and local health agencies, community groups, and academic institutions to assist communities in strengthening their capacity to respond to long-term health hazards from nuclear contamination. Founded in 1988, the Institute's initial focus was on the risks of low level radiation to child health. CCRI's concern with the harmful effects of low level radiation are based on the pioneering work of Dr. Alice Stewart, the Institute's scientific director.

Understanding Radiation Health Effects

Once present in the atmosphere, radionuclides can contaminate the body in several ways, via alpha, beta, or gamma radiation. Alpha and beta radiation are particles and gamma radiation is a form of wave energy. Alpha particles are composed of 2 neutrons and 2 protons. They have large mass and cannot penetrate human skin or other materials easily, although their high energy can cause significant damage when ingested or inhaled. Beta particles are composed of one electron. They have less mass than alpha particles and can penetrate and damage the under layers of skin. They are also dangerous when ingested or inhaled. Gamma rays are similar to light and heat but have a much shorter wave length and higher frequency. They can pass through the body, sometimes without causing damage.

External radiation occurs when the whole body or part of it is exposed to beta particles or to gamma rays emitted from radionuclides; for example, clouds containing radionuclides pass over a population (e.g., from nuclear testing). Internal radiation occurs when individuals ingest or inhale radioactive substances (alpha and beta particles) that are suspended in air or water or have entered the food chain. Ingestion and inhalation are generally considered the two most dangerous pathways of exposure since once inside the body radionuclides are capable of causing significant damage (additional materials are available from CCRI about radiation and its health effects).

When the human body is exposed to ionizing radiation, it can be affected in several ways, In some cases the ionizing particles or waves can pass right through the atoms that compose body cells and miss them completely, causing no damage or change. However, in most cases, damage to a portion of the cells occurs. Some scientists believe it takes several "hits" of radiation to a given cell to cause damage; others believe that damage can occur with a single "hit." According to Dr. Alice Stewart, while damaged cells can sometimes repair themselves, this phenomenon is akin to gluing a broken plate back together. Although mended, the cell is weakened and will never have the same level of internal integrity again. This means that the cell may well be more susceptible to any additional assaults such as disease or injury and less capable of repairing itself after any future damage.

A major danger of ionizing radiation is its potential for damaging the body's DNA, making it difficult or impossible for cells to reproduce correctly. This can result in cells that form mutants of themselves, which either die or continue to reproduce in an altered state. As this process is repeated, the number of abnormal cells can grow rapidly, leading to the formation of tumors or other forms of cancer. By the time a tumor can be felt or seen it is already composed of several million abnormal cells. A variety of cancers and diseases have been studied for their possible association with exposure to nuclear contamination from DOE weapons production, testing, storage, and dismantling (e.g., reprocessing). They include leukemia and cancers to the thyroid, lungs, liver, bone, kidney, pancreas, and ovaries.

When the DNA of reproductive (somatic) cells are affected, the integrity of human reproduction is threatened. Higher rates of miscarriage, birth defects, and other birth anomalies may occur within exposed populations. Mental retardation, neural tube defects, stunted growth, microcephaly (small head size), and Downs Syndrome have been associated with radiation exposure to reproductive cells or fetuses.

Communities throughout the US are exposed to elevated levels of radioactivity resulting from nuclear testing and DOE nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear energy facilities and activities.

The effects of radiation exposure depend on a variety of factors, including whether the exposure is short-term or long-term, low-level or high-level, the health or gender of the exposed individual, the area of the body exposed, and an individual's propensity to develop cancer. Fetuses and children are generally thought to be more at risk to developing cancers because their cells are dividing much more rapidly, which makes them more susceptible to damage and the reproduction of mutations. The elderly and the sick may also be at more risk than healthy adults.

Low doses of radiation were originally thought to be "safe," or at least to pose no substantial risk to humans. However, research on low dose exposures has shown that these exposures can also cause changes in DNA, but at a much slower pace. Even low doses absorbed by the body can lead eventually to cancer or genetic damage. Abnormalities may be "hidden" during latency periods and not appear for some time (BEIR V, 1990). The latency period is defined as the time between initial exposure to ionizing radiation and the first manifestation of a disease (e.g., cancerous tumors). Again, latency periods depend on a variety of factors, including the type of cancer, the characteristics of the exposed individual, and the characteristics of the exposures (e.g., source radionuclide, duration, level of exposure). It is now commonly believed that there are no thresholds below which radiation exposures will not cause harm.

Communities throughout the US are exposed to elevated levels of radioactivity resulting from nuclear testing and DOE nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear energy facilities and activities. For many, information about their exposures has been shrouded in secrecy, difficult to understand, or simply unavailable or not relevant to their site-specific situation. CCRI is a non-profit public health institute whose mission includes the development of public health outreach programs that strengthen community-based capabilities to respond to the health hazards of nuclear contamination.

For example, CCRI works closely with the Health Priority Working Group of the Military Production Network (MPN), a coalition of grassroots and national groups concerned with safety and health issues around the DOE nuclear weapons complex. In collaboration with MPN, CCRI has initiated new mechanisms for public participation in federal public health activities. They have successfully worked with the Centers for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to develop a strategy for improved public participation in the activities of both agencies.

These collaborative efforts contributed significantly to the establishment of six site-specific health advisory committees in affected communities; the sites will include Hanford, Savannah River, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Fernald, and Idaho National Engineering Laboratory. In addition, CCRI and the MPN have been actively involved in promoting the establishment of a community advisory subcommittee to the Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Energy Related Epidemiological Research.

A major part of CCRI's efforts is collaborative work with the communities themselves. Projects assist members of affected communities to better understand the health and environmental effects of nuclear contamination so that they may be empowered to make meaningful decisions about healing their communities. Community members become better informed to respond to their health needs; better able to participate meaningfully in agency health assessments, monitoring (i.e., participatory research); better able to critically evaluate agency and contractor studies and to perform their own studies; and better able to build community infrastructure to manage the health effects on a long-term basis.

In addition, technical experts participating in such activities are learning to be equal partners with community groups, engaged in a two-way process of learning from each other. Through this interchange, technical experts improve their understanding of site-specific and culture-based concerns and needs.

For example, in 1993 CCRI began working with other organizations on the "Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities Project." Native American communities bear a disproportionate burden of risk from US nuclear activities ranging from uranium mining to waste disposal. While radiation risks have received extensive general study, very little research has examined these risks within the specific contexts of the lives of Native American peoples. The goal of this project is to foster the development of community-based capabilities through a collaborative effort involving:

The major program components are to develop community exposure profiles (summaries of technical information and community interviews regarding contamination impacts); develop a series of educational modules about radiation and health for community health trainers, community members, and health care providers; organize community strategic planning sessions for community healing; and conduct outreach to other Native communities affected by nuclear contamination, federal, state, and local health agencies, and the academic community. An additional important component of the program is to develop methodologies for the collection and evaluation of local knowledge concerning nuclear contamination and its health effects.

For example, the Project provides financial, technical, and infrastructure support so that the community-based trainers and researchers can educate their communities, conduct community interviews and record oral histories regarding contamination impacts.

CCRI and its collaborators are seeking to develop general models and strategies that can be applied in many communities affected by radiation contamination to develop effective responses to health effects of nuclear contamination. These strategies are based on developing local capacities for long-term education, research, and meaningful public participation at all stages of assessment, monitoring and evaluation, and more effective collaboration between technical experts and the affected community members.


Gofman, J., & Tamplin, A. (1979). Poisoned power. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press.

BEIR V (1990). Health effects of low dose exposure to ionizing radiation. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Gofman, J. (1981). Radiation and human health. San Francisco, Calif.: Sierra Club Books. M

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