The following, "No Immediate danger? Prognosis for a radioactive earth,"
appearred in Women and sustainable development: a report from Women's
forum in Bergen, Norway, 14-15 May 1990, published by the Center for
Information on Women and Development, Oslo, Norway, 1990, pp. 18-21.
Dr. Rosalie Bertell has a doctorate in Biometry, which is the use of
mathematics to understand and predict biolological processes, for
example in cancer research. For more than twenty years she has worked
with health-oriented environmental protection with special emphasis on
the consequences of radioactive radiation. She is the President of the
International Institute of
Concern for Public Health in Toronto, Canada,
and one of the founders of the International Commission for Health
Professionals in Geneva. This Commission works with health personnel
to secure human rights.
Dr. Bertell has been a consultant for the US Nuclear Regulatory
Commission and the US Environmental Protection Agency. In her book
Immediate Danger, Prognosis for a Radioactive
Earth," (Women's Press,
London 1985) she sums up the damaging effects of low-level radiation,
the genetic damage to human beings as well as the effects of the
increasing background radiation from nuclear power plants and the
nuclear weapons industry.
Dr. Rosalie Bertell:
No immediate danger?
Prognosis for a radioactive earth
The operating mode in our Society is called risk-benefit planning. Everything
is done on the basis of risks and benefits. Risks are life and health--dying
of cancer, having a deformed child. The benefit side is to make money or to
gain political or social power. The bad news is that the people who make
these rational trade-offs for us, are the same people as get the benefits.
I will talk about sustainable development in a very different way
than what they do at the official Conference. I would compare this to
your own personal experience: If you have gotten beyond youth and good
health and suddenly have to confront chronic illness, you begin to
realize what it is to sustain what you are doing. The kind of work you
do, the amount of sleep, the amount of food, the amount of new
undertakings are very much limited by your personal energy and your
personal ability to sustain it.
In the same sense the human race has limitations. We act as if that
part is all automatic, but that is not true.
Damage the future generations
Another unconscious assumption is that as long as we make sure there
are enough resources around in the future, there is no problem for the
future generations--they can just go ahead and do what they want. In
fact we talk about "the freedom of choice for the future generations."
I want to talk about something called mild mutations which is a very
subtle undermining of the genepool. It is not talked about, it is not
measured, but it is occuring. What you do is to create a next
generation that is physically less able to cope with hazardious
material than their parents were. If you do two things at once: you
mildly damage the next generation--genetic damage--and you increase
the hazards in the environment, then you can do this for two or three
generations and you are finished. People will be physically less able
to cope, and they will have more to cope with.
We are also talking about physical damage to the brain, inablility to
think as clearly and as well as previous generations. With aboveground
weapon testing there was a decrease in general intelligence quotient as
measured by standardized tests. They are starting to admit it now even
in official publications. In a recent publication from the US Academy
of Science it is admitted that exposure of the fetus to radiation
between the eighth and the fifteenth week lowers mental ability, causes
I am going to use radiation as the basic pollutant, because it is so
Explosion in living cells
Non-ionizing radiation is the use of long wavelengths for radio,
heating, microwaves, infra-red etc., while penetrating ionizing
radiation which occurs in gamma-ray, X-ray and cosmic-ray radiation is
the radiation I will here refer to here. When a material is
radioactive it means it periodically has an explosion on a microscopic
level. When it explodes, it gives out energy in such a way that it can
ionize--penetrate. Take for example just one atom of plutonium in a
lung tissue. In exploding it shoots out particles of energy through
living cells. As you know a cell is not empty, but a living system
filled with different types of matter with separate jobs to do in the
body. We can not feel anything of this explosion on cellular level.
But it will do damage.
There is no such thing as a radiation exposure that will not do
damage. There is a hundred per cent possibility that there will be
damage to cells. The next question is: which damage do you care
The damage which is apt to cause most trouble in a whole system like
a human being, is the damage that hits the nucleus of the cell. Because
inside the nucleus is the chromosome material that carries the template
of what the cell does. If you change that, you change what the cell
produces. If you change one cell, and it is still able to produce, it
makes two cells with damaged chromosomes which can cause exponential
growth of cells that are not going to do the right thing. An example
of an illness that results from this is adult diabetes where the person
has sufficient insulin, but it doesn't work to bring down the blood
sugar. It is mutated.
Another example is allergy. You may get allergy as an adult--then
you have stopped producing antibodies. Over time we build up things
like inability to digest food, we don't recover as quickly after
illness, we get hormone problems and so on. All this comes from this
kind of changes and mistakes in the chromosome material.
Waste precious resources
The one type of damage talked about the most, is when you upset a
cell's resting mechanism. Then you get a cancer or a tumor. Normally
a cell reproduces and then rests. If you eliminate that rest, the cell
just reproduces all the time and you get a lot of cells in one place, a
You know it takes only one ovum and one sperm to make a baby, and the
DNA in that cell contains all the information on how to make a normal
baby. If you start destroying that DNA, you get a deformed child or a
We always have to remember that the future generations on this planet
are not nebulous, we are right now carring them in our bodies, they
don't come from out of space! They come from the sperm and the ovum
that are right now living in the bodies of people living on this
planet. If we destroy that, we have no way of putting it back together
To sum up: Mild mutation is damage to the genetic material which
shows up in the children as either obvious disability or asthma,
allergy, immune deficiency, childhood cancer, etc. These are very real
and are occuring. We can increase the rate of the damage, and we have
done just that. This is probably the most insane way to waste the
precious resources of the world. Whatever I say about humans also is
true in the animals and the plants that produce our food. We are
killing ourselves with our suvival strategy. We think we are saving
overselves, but instead we are undermining our ability to survive.
Not only cancer
For many years we have known that radiation causes damage to human
cells, and we have heard about genetic damage and cancers. But already
in the fifties medical radiologists started looking at their own first
causes of death and discovered that not only were they dying at a
higher rate from cancer, but that they also were dying at an higher
rate from everything else: cardiovascular, renal disease and other
chronic illnesses. I am trying to show you the breadth of what
radiation does. We receive so much propaganda saying that if you are
exposed to radiation you have a chance of getting cancer, and if you
don't get cancer you don't get anything. But to repeat: there is a
hundred per cent probability of cellular damage when you are exposed to
radiation. The body can repair some, but there is always residual
damage. Whether or not you care about it depends on how severe it is
and what you take as a starting point. Right now they are counting
only fatal cancer. You are told that low doses of radiation can't be
Analysis of cancer deaths in children in the US during the
aboveground nuclear testing period from the late forties to the sixties
shows a startling increase in childhood cancers between the age of zero
and five. They respond to radiation doses in utero. The rates are now
coming down, but have not yet returned to the level before the testing
started. Downwind of a test-sight is even worse. We are talking here
about hundreds of babies. Anything that can cause death by leukemia is
going to cause a lot of other effects in children. For every child
with leukemia, about 100 others have changes in their blood.
The most remarkable thing was that no one complained or protested.
But they didn't know. Each woman and man who lost a child, thought it
was a personal tragedy and didn't connect it with the weapon testing.
But the analysis states that two out of three child deaths were
Deaths of newborn babies
There are other public health dangers from "normal" radiation. I am
talking about normally operating nuclear power plants, not accidents.
We have analyzed the death rate of babies of less than 2,500 grams near
nuclear power plants in the state of Wisconsin. Over the first five
years of normal operation of the nuclear reactors there were a hundred
excess infant deaths. Again nobody was complaining or marching in the
streets--because each one was a "family tragedy." In fact I went back
and visited the hospitals and the doctors knew that their child death
rate was going up. But they did not look outside the hospital for
reasons. They were bringing in experts to look at their intensive
infant care unit, and they were sending their nurses out to learn how
to care for babies. So the nurses were being blamed! If it is not the
nurses, it is the mothers to be blamed when there is a deformed child.
But these deaths don't count in the ordinary risk/benefit
calculations, because these babies don't die of cancer. So we are into
an insane system of what counts. There are other infants who survive,
but who live with disabilities.
If we look at miscarriages the same thing holds true. You damage the
sperm cells and ovums and a large number of babies are lost. I worked
with the pollution from the nuclear plants at the Love Canal in the
States, the only area to be declared a national disaster area for
pollution. We had already evacuated a hundred families in the center
of the pollution. During the following winter they were deciding
whether or not to evacuate the people in the outer circle. Of ten
babies born in that period in this outer ring only one was normal. And
that was the pregnancies that came to term, there were a lot of
This should show the vulnerability of the human race. If we don't
survive none of the rest of this planet is going to be worth anything.
Marshall Islands: Experiment on human beings
Let me tell you about the Marshall Islands. On 1 March 1954 they set
off the first hydrogen bomb on the Bikini Islands. The bomb
represented 1,000 Hiroshima bombs! The island of Rongelap got the
fallout of the bomb. This was actually a very deliberate experiment on
human beings. That bomb was set off and the people downwind were not
evacuated. They wanted quite deliberately to find out what would
happen if the population "only" got the fallout and no blast effect,
like they did in Hiroshima. They finally evacuated the people after 72
hours and gave them medical care. Three years later they said the
island was now inhabitable, it fitted within the "permissible level of
radiation." They not only moved back the "fallout" population, but
sent a matched control group back to find out how these people would
survive the residual radiation. They were sent to live on a
contaminated land, which was within "the permissible level." By the
way, this level is the same one that you used in Norway for the
An analysis of the children from the control group shows that the
white blood cells were destroyed. That might not seem important to
you, but the white blood cells are the ones that help you fight
diseases. The children had epidemics of polio, lepracy and
tuberculosis. Epidemic diseases occur everywhere where there have been
I have now moved from what causes cancer to what disrupts your blood
system. If we based our regulations on what disrupts your blood
system, the permissible level of radiation would drop dramatically.
How many becquerels in the reindeer would be permissible if it was
based on whether or not your blood was affected? Then that number
would drop dramatically. What we are saying now is that: well, the
Sami people are eating it, the rest of us can get something else to
eat, so we don't bother.
We leave the regulation at a level that kills people, that destroys
Evidence: the Kerala Community
The scientists of the establishment claim that we don't have any
evidence that humans suffer genetic effects from radiation. This is
based on the fact that they didn't see any genetic effects after
But there are large populations that have been exposed to radiation
over generations that they could look at if they wanted. A recently
concluded health survey reveals that more disabled and sub-normal
children are born to mothers exposed to higher natural background
radiation. There is an area in Kerala in India, where there is
naturally occuring thorium monozite sand, a kind of black sand. There
are 44,000 people living there, many for generations. Over the last
two years we have collected information on illness among the families
living on this radioactive sand compared with families living on
natural sand in the same area.
What we found on the radioactive soil was four times the expected
level of Down's Syndrome or mongoloid children. Also mental
retardation, epilepsy, congenital blindness and deafness, cleft lip and
cleft palate, skeletal abnormalities and childless couples.
When I hear about family planning, given what I know about the
Marshall Islanders, the downwinders of the Nevada Test Site, and the
Kerala Community, I feel like fighting for the right to have children
and the right to have normal children. Because this is taken away -
also in a much more subtle way. The University of Florida has measured
sperm rates in men for the last 25 years in the US. It used to be 1 in
25 males in the US who were infertile. Now it is one in five. 20 per
cent of the men in the US are now unable to have children. This is
another human right that is being violated.
What can we do?
How can we get out of this situation? I started by saying there is a
risk/benefit trade-off. One of the simplest, but most resisted things
to do, is to separate out the function of calculating the risks from
that of calculating the benefits. You should strengthen your public
health sector. The doctors don't know what the risks of radiation are.
They use statistics produced by the nuclear industry to tell what the
risks are. Your Health Department is still dealing with the plague,
they are not dealing with environmental health problems--and they have
to, or else we will not survive. Focus on risks you care about, like
long term chronic diseases, like undermining immune systems, like
producing disabled children and miscarriages.
We don't have to wait until we have an epidemic of cancer deaths. We
can move way back and look at more sensitive health indicators--and
stop before we get to an ecological disaster.
At some point or other if we survive, there's going to have to be a massive
non-cooperation with our society which is producing death. . . . And if we
are ever to break out of the militaristic society that we live in--and that
is what I think is our basic aim, because that's what distorting every-
thing--it's going to have to be through an across-the-board non-cooperation
-- Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Vancouver, 1986