Under the Cloud

Author Richard Miller spent years uncovering the harm caused to Americans by nuclear fallout from atmospheric testing

first published in the Riverfront Times in the 1990s. 

BY C.D. STELZER

The image cast by the overhead projector showed a grainy snapshot of a boy with a crew cut crouched next to a tail-wagging dog. In the faded background, a pick-up truck could be seen parked next to a modest frame house. The time was 1955; the place Paris, Mo.

The bucolic setting could not have been more deceptive. When the spring rains fell that year, they permanently changed the lives of many residents of the small town in the northeast corner of the state, as they did countless other lives across the continent. But unlike the havoc reeked by floods or other natural disasters, the damage to humanity could not be immediately measured. At the time, few people knew anything about the effects of exposure to radioactive fallout. Nuclear weapons research, propelled by the arms race and the ensuing hysteria over national security, proceeded unimpeded. Between 1951 and 1963 more than one hundred above-ground atomic bombs blasts were detonated by the federal government at its Nev ada Test Site.

Richard L. Miller — the youngster in the photograph — has spent much of his adult life learning of the consequences of that nuclear atmospheric testing during the Cold War.

Last Saturday, the 50-year-old author displayed the black-and-white image from his childhood along with photographs of nuclear explosions at a conference of the National Association of Radiation Survivors, which convened at the Henry VIII Hotel on North Lindbergh Boulevard. Miller, who wrote Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing, feels both vindicated and disturbed by the findings of a recently released National Cancer Institute (NCI) study on the dangers of nuclear fallout.

“First and foremost, … it’s an admission by the government that they dose d the entire United States with fallout,” Miller told the audience. The NCI study made public in August took almost a decade-and-a-half to complete. It concludes that 10,000 to 75,000 people, who were exposed to high levels of fallout of as children, may contract thyroid cancer as a result.

The wind, rain and weather dispersed the isotope randomly across large sections of the U.S. and Canada, after the detonation of experimental atomic bombs blasts. Most of the children were exposed to the fallout, Iodine-131, by drinking contaminated milk.

Despite the belated confession by the federal government, Miller criticized the NCI report for excluding relevant data, which if taken into account would increase the potential health problems caused by the fallout. “There are two hundred other isotopes,” he says, “isotopes that can cause cancer in other parts of the body, including bone cancer and leukemia.” None of the those elements were factored into the study, however.

Miller found another oversight. “They did not include all the maps.” Miller caught the omission by comparing NCI data available on Internet with copies of 1959 Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and National Weather Service documents he had tucked away in his closet. Interestingly, the fal lout from the14 nuclear blasts excluded from the NCI study, all show fallout crossing into Canada, according to Miller.

“The NCI’s maps, to be charitable, are not very good. They don’t give the same amount of information that the originals do,” says Mi ller. “They spent 15 years working on this thing. … You would think that they would have the very best computer technology available to enhance the quality of the images.”

When Miller recently asked the Missouri Department of Health whether it had correlated data on fallout with any other forms of cancer other than the type that attack the thyroid gland, the agency said it had not. Regarding thyroid cancer, the health department claimed that based on available data there appeared to be no increase in the Missouri counties, Miller says.

Miller doesn’t agree with either finding. In his opinion, the state like its federal counterpart is continuing to exclude data that indicates cancer rates are tied to fallout exposure. In this case, the state faile d to even consider scientific findings that have been on the books for more than a decade. “The third national cancer survey published in 1983 shows spikes of thyroid cancer in a number of hot counties (in Missouri),” says Miller. “It also shows spikes o f leukemia in a number of the hot counties, as well as, bone cancer.”

Missouri has the dubious distinction of having more than two dozen counties among the 200 nationwide that were the most heavily contaminated by nuclear fallout, according to the NCI s tudy. The majority of the effected counties are in the northeast quadrant of the state, where Miller was born and raised.

“In 1968, my father, who was a tax collector for Monroe Co. (Mo.), which is one of the hot zones, noticed there was a high level of cancer in one particular part of the county,” says Miller. After joining the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the early 1970s, Miller himself had an opportunity to further investigate his father’s observations. He too foun d what appeared to be extraordinary numbers of cancer cases in Monroe County, and he subsequently informed epidemiologists at the University of Missouri. “This was 1975 and I haven’t heard from them since,” says Miller. A year later Miller’s father died of lung cancer.

Miller’s OSHA career next took him to Texas, where he began investigating a cluster of rare brain cancers at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Houston. When he attempted expand his investigation to a nearby Dow chemical facility, the Reagan administration called a halt to it and began shredding documents. The OSHA office where he worked was ultimately closed. It was during this period that a public health official suggested to him that the pocket of brain cancer cases in Houston may h ave been the result of nuclear fallout. When he looked into it, Miller did indeed discover a correlation between fallout patterns and brain cancer clusters in both Texas and Kentucky. His extensive research finally led him to write the book on the subje ct.

Currently, Miller operates a private environmental consulting firm in Houston that investigates toxic chemical contamination. He is also the author of a novel that is set in the nuclear fallout era.

The reasoning that led to mass radiation exposure is stranger than fiction, however. “They did it because they could,” says Miller of the government’s nuclear testing program. “I think they’re mistaken impression was that it was for the greater good. At the time, they thought that if we set off these bombs, if we caused hazards across the country, we may in some way be protecting the U.S. from possible attack by the Soviets. … (But) The Soviets didn’t even have an aircraft that could make it to the U.S. and back at that time,” says Miller.

“I be lieve the feds originally caused this problem, the AEC, specifically,” he adds. “It dosed Missouri with radioactive fallout. Now it’s up to the federal government to help Missouri out in terms of education programs and possibly compensation for medical c are for particular types of illnesses that are known to be associated with fallout. I believe the first order of business is to introduce a resolution that would ask for this additional funding. I would think that the representatives from the good state of Missouri would be the ones to do that.”

Yours Truly, Seriously Nuked

chart.jpgA St. Louis epidemic of tinea capitas, aka ringworm of the scalp, was treated with unshielded head X-Rays in the 1950s

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Jan. 12, 1994

BY C.D. STELZER

In the middle of an asphalt schoolyard more than a half a century ago, I stood alone, doffed my skull caps and flung them in the air. Both homemade yarmulkes were secular creations — byproducts of the nuclear age — the outer one fashioned from a white cotton sock, its inner lining sewn from nylon hosiery.

To me, they were symbols of separateness at public elementary school that year. A year in which I had often been segregated from classmates. But now it was spring, a long-awaited reprieve had finally been granted. Health officials ruled my condition no longer posed a threat to other students. I could attend the coming school picnic with no chance of infecting others. On my way home that day, my 7-year-old bald head felt the wind and sun for the first time since the previous fall.

I missed more than a month of the school year in 1957 and 1958. But the unpleasant memories would be tossed away, forgotten like my discarded skull caps in the schoolyard, and the parental reprimand I received for not disposing of them properly. My hair would grow back. A summer of bicycles and hoola-hoops awaited.

My case of “tinea capitis” or ringworm of the scalp, as it is commonly called, sank into an abyss of statistical insignificance like an unknown factor within a lost equation. The fungi that had attacked my hair follicles were eliminated by what was then considered a normal medical procedure. But uncertainties that have since arisen from the X-ray treatment I received for this benign childhood disease will continue to shadow me for the rest of my life.

A decade after my own treatment at St. Louis’ Children’s Hospital, a scientific study estimated that the scalps of irradiated ringworm patients had been exposed to as many as 800 rads of unfiltered X-rays, with lesser amounts being absorbed by the brain, cranial marrow, head, neck, parotid, pituitary and thyroid glands.

My medical record shows I received five overlapping dosages of radiation, which each measured 353 roentgens. A roentgen calculates the air dosage, whereas a rad indicates the amount of absorbed ionizing radiation to the tissue. Other measurements have now supplanted these units, but according to one expert, administering multiple-doses of this degree was not uncommon. By contrast, a person who receives a diagnostic chest X-ray absorbs about .02 of one rad.

Ringworm patients in my category have been used for comparative analyses along side Japanese atomic bomb survivors and Marshall Islanders who were exposed to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Subsequent scientific papers have indicated that over time there have been significant increases in tumors as well as skin, thyroid and brain cancers among those who received the X-Ray treatment. One study has also correlated more psychiatric problems among irradiated ringworm patients.

By 1959 — a little more than a year after I had contracted tinea capitis the accepted treatment for the disease had changed. An anti-fungal agent called “griseofulvin” became the standard remedy. X-ray therapy is no longer applied to those who have ringworm of the scalp. But before use of the method ended, an estimated 200,000 children worldwide underwent irradiation, with perhaps 10 percent of those cases originating in the United States.

Ringworm of the scalp is but one of a number of different related fungi, which adds to the confusion over the disease. A Hungarian bacteriologist isolated the cause in 1843 and named it “Microsporon Audouini,” after a French scientist who specialized in the study of silkworms. This false association distracted scientists for sometime. The painful cure for the disease back then involved pulling a child’s hair out by its roots. Later in the 19th century, another French researcher, Raymond Sabouraud, recommended X-ray treatments as a more humane alternative. The radiation procedure that began to be used in 1910 took the name of two later researchers and was called the Adamson-Keinbock technique. It was widely used to treat post-World War II epidemics.

After receiving my X-ray dose, a family doctor later diagnosed I had a thyroid condition. The physician, Eugene Hall, is now retired and has yet to be located. However, my hospital record includes a letter from my mother mentioning a rash that developed around the time of my X-ray treatment. A response from the hospital’s chief of clinics tersely dismissed her complaint that the rash still had not subsided seven months after the X ray treatment.

According to a scientific report published just last year (1993), “the association between thyroid cancer and exposure to ionizing radiation was suggested as early as 1950.” Nevertheless, Children’s Hospital continued the use the Adamson-Keinbock technique for at least another eight years.

Roy Shore, the author of the study, states that “thyroid cancer risks appear to be greater following irradiation at younger ages.” Shore, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University Medical School, has been involved in a series of follow-up studies on the subject since 1976. His most recent report concludes that “a lifelong risk seems probable since several studies have found excess risk in their irradiated groups for 50 years or more.”

In a telephone interview last week, Shore speculated on the reason why such X-ray treatments continued unabated through the 1950s. “Number one, there were probably not a whole lot (of physicians) who were aware of the potential for thyroid cancer. It was not a very prominent finding back then,” said Shore. “But secondly, I would think that most radiologists didn’t think there was any appreciable dose to the thyroid gland. Indeed, it’s very small compared the dose to the scalp itself.”