Feb. 7, 2000 CHAPEL HILL -- Scientists who help set standards for radiation safety rely too much on studies of A-bomb survivors, according to radiation researchers who analyzed the relative strengths of data from two exposed populations: A-bomb survivors and nuclear plant workers.
Results of the new study appear in a special section on "The Science and Politics of Radiation Studies" in the current issue of New Solutions, a scientific journal.
Researchers found "an increasingly outdated emphasis on evidence about radiation health effects based on studies of A-bomb survivors."
In their article, Drs. Steven Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, and colleagues wrote that even occupational radiation researchers use atomic bomb survivor studies as a standard for interpreting nuclear worker findings.
The practice has developed despite studies over two decades suggesting that reliance on the bomb survivor studies may produce serious underestimates of cancer risks among exposed populations.
The new paper appears just after the start of the National Research Council's reassessment of the consequences of exposure to low-level radiation, a project that may take as long as three years to complete. It is of special interest in light of the government's stunning admission last week that workers at 14 nuclear weapons plants were exposed to radiation that caused cancer and premature death.
The authors examined why the A-bomb survivor studies have dominated the field and maintain that studies of nuclear workers should get more attention. They noted the influence of military and industrial interests in such research, the problems of access to data and the difficulty of obtaining funding. Further, they say, "researchers investigating radiation health effects among nuclear workers will have to overcome the constraints imposed by this scientific culture upon hypothesis generation, design, analysis and interpretation of occupational studies."
Nevertheless, scientific attention to nuclear worker studies should increase in the future, they said.
"Longer follow-up and larger numbers of deaths will increase their statistical power and opportunities for analysis of rare causes of death, disease latency and influences of age at exposure and other aspects of susceptibility," the authors said. "Greater attention to historical records at DOE (Department of Energy) facilities should allow better measurement of radiological and other exposures.
"As researchers and policy-makers come to appreciate the unique advantages of studies of nuclear workers, these studies should make a greater impact on occupational and environmental exposure standards."
Wing has conducted studies of nuclear industry workers at Oak Ridge, Hanford, Los Alamos and Savannah River. He is currently involved in a study of Hanford workers and a project focusing on environmental injustice in Eastern North Carolina. Co-authors are Dr. David Richardson, visiting scientist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, and Dr. Alice Stewart, professor of public health and epidemiology at the University of Birmingham in England.
In the same issue of the journal, Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso presents an historical account of the occupational and environmental impacts of uranium mining in the Navajo nation. The policies of federal and state governments are examined during the intense uranium mining and milling operations that took place in the Southwest, including on the Navajo reservation, from 1947 to 1966.
Moure-Eraso, an industrial hygienist and occupational health policy specialist at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, found that the miners were put at serious risk of harm from exposure to radiation and that there was inadequate disclosure of the hazards they faced, often with fatal outcomes. "Uranium miners were unwilling and unaware victims of human experimentation to evaluate the health effects of radiation," Moure-Eraso said. "The failure to issue regulations or apply this knowledge caused widespread environmental damage in the Navajo nation."
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