General overview of the effects of nuclear testing

Page 2: General Overview

Gradual increase in knowledge about dangers of radiation exposure

Over the past century, there has been a gradual accumulation of knowledge about the hazards of radioactivity. It was recognized early on that exposure to a sufficient radiation dosage could cause injuries to internal organs, as well as to the skin and the eyes.

According to the 2000 Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation to the UN General Assembly, radiation exposure can damage living cells, killing some and modifying others. The destruction of a sufficient number of cells will inflict noticeable harm on organs which may result in death. If altered cells are not repaired, the resulting modification will be passed on to further cells and may eventually lead to cancer. Modified cells that transmit hereditary information to the offspring of the exposed individual might cause hereditary disorders. Vegetation can also be contaminated when fallout is directly deposited on external surfaces of plants and absorbed through the roots. Furthermore, people can be exposed when they eat meat and milk from animals grazing on contaminated vegetation.

Radiation exposure has been associated with most forms
of leukaemia, as well as cancer of the thyroid, lung and breast.

Studies reveal link between nuclear weapon testing and cancer

The American Cancer Society’s website explains how ionizing radiation, which refers to several types of particles and rays given off by radioactive materials, is one of the few scientifically proven carcinogens in human beings. Radiation exposure has been associated with most forms of leukaemia, as well as cancer of the thyroid, lung and breast. The time that may elapse between radiation exposure and cancer development can be anything between 10 and 40 years. Degrees of exposure regarded as tolerable in the 1950s are now recognized internationally as unsafe.

An article featured in Volume 94 of American Scientist on Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks states that a number of studies of biological samples (including bone, thyroid glands and other tissues) have provided increasing proof that specific radionuclides in fallout are implicated in fallout-related cancers.

It is difficult to assess the number of deaths that might be attributed to radiation exposure from nuclear testing. Some studies and evaluations, including an assessment by Arjun Makhijani on the health effects of nuclear weapon complexes, estimate that cancer fatalities due to the global radiation doses from the atmospheric nuclear testing programmes of the five nuclear-weapon States amount to hundreds of thousands. A 1991 study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) estimated that the radiation and radioactive materials from atmospheric testing taken in by people up until the year 2000 would cause 430,000 cancer deaths, some of which had already occurred by the time the results were published. The study predicted that roughly 2.4 million people could eventually die from cancer as a result of atmospheric testing.