The Genesis of Knowledge – Genetic & Other Harms from Radiation
I had by this stage in my blog hoped to have tackled in situ acid leach uranium mining and the harms it has caused throughout the former Soviet Bloc.
However, press reports of the inadequacy of the Rudd government’s response to the plight of nuclear veterans, and the recently repeated statements by veterans describing the suffering of many of their children have caused me to change my timetable slightly.
It is my perception that most people believe that knowledge of the harms caused by exposure to ionising radiation has been gained in the relatively recent past. Certainly, the myth persists that in 1945 radiation effects were poorly understood.
While it is true that prior to World War 2 the concept of long term harm was poorly concived by the bulk of scientists at the time, there were exceptions.
In the field of genetics, one person stands out. He inspired the later work of Lewis, Pauling and others.
Muller and Fruit Flies
In H. J. Muller in 1927 had reported in “Science” that X-rays
induce genetic mutations in Drosophila (fruit fly) (Muller, 1927); for
this work he received the Nobel Prize in 1946. Shortly
thereafter, Muller and others showed that the frequency of
X-ray induced mutations in Drosophila is approximately in direct linear proportion to the dose received (Hanson and Heys, 1929; Muller, 1928; Oliver,
1930). Importantly, over the next twenty years it was shown that X-rays given to Drosophila in relatively small doses over a long period
produce the same genetic effects as an equal dose administered all at once (Uphoff and Stern, 1949).
One sentence in Muller’s 1927 paper highlights the fact that he was already thinking about the possibility that the “…effect of X-rays, in occasionally producing cancer, may also be associated with their action in producing
mutations” (Muller, 1927). Ten years later he expanded on this idea, hypothesizing
“that the carcinomas, sarcomas and leukemias arising after irradiation represent mutations induced by [X-rays]” (Muller, 1937).
(Primary source: From fruit flies to fallout: Ed Lewis and his science
H O W A R D L I P S H I T Z
Program in Developmental Biology, Research Institute,
The Hospital for Sick Children,
Department of Molecular and Medical Genetics, University
of Toronto, 555 University Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario M5G 1X8, Canada
Journal of Genetics, Vol. 83, No. 2, August 2004)
So one can see that two years after jaw cancer in radium dial painters had been conclusively shown to be caused by ingested radium (1925, Hofman, JAMA, 85:961, 1925, cited by Brucer in his “Chronology of Nuclear Medicine”), Muller had shown genetic damage to be caused by ionizing radiation. Two years prior to the outbreak of World War 2 and eight years prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in July 1945 at New Mexico, fifteen years prior to the first British atomic bomb detonation on Australia at Monte Belllo Island, Muller had shown that the genetic damage was culmulative and irreversible.
The “Drunk’s Defence” does not apply
The so-called “drunk’s defence” of lack of coherent insight does not apply to the nuclear military industrial complex and has not since 1925 and 1927.
Guinea pigs nuclear victims may well be, but only in a sense. For any soldier who has read the “Infantry Field Manuals” of the NATO and SEATO nations knows the basic drill when performing upon the nuclear battlefield. The relevant sections of these restricted manuals owe their existence to the nuclear veterans and downwinders of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Their work and after effects were in fact duly noted. In my opinion.
There was foresight appropriate to the undertaking and where there is foresight, there are predictable outcomes. Therefore there is responsibility and culpability for the effects of deliberate exposure of people to ionizing radiation. The military mind might see survival in terms of rotation times as the main criteria. The individual afflicted by such tests and nuclear battlefield training as personally important for themselves and their children. And their children. A fortnight is a long time in a battle. The effects last generations.
The chronology of knowledge contained within the historical record is complex and extensive. I make no apology for attempting to explain some of it here. If this discussion is too technical, skip to the photographs at the end. I am addressing Mr. Rudd, Arpansa and other relevant authorities as well as the general reader.
How Radiation Harms Us
The Gene and Chromosome
‘Man’s own reproductive material is his most invaluable,
irretrievable, possession. It is already subject to an amount
of variation which in relation to his present reproductive
practices borders on the excessive. Under these
circumstances man’s first concern in dealing with radiation
must be his own protection.’ – Geneticist H. J. Muller, who in
1928 discovered that ionizing radiation could induce
mutations, speaking at the United Nations Conference
on Nuclear Energy, Geneva, 1955.
Genes and viruses have much in common. They are unstable
very large molecules of nucleoproteins. Both genes and
viruses have the ability ob being reproduced exactly when
conditions are favorable. (Source: “A t o m i c R a d ia t i o n a n d
L i f e ” , Peter Alexander, Pelican Books, London, 1957)
It is probable that the evolution of viruses were an essential
step in the development of more complex life forms. Both
are capable of spontaneous mutation (change in their
molecular construction). Both are easily changed by ionizing
When radiation produces ionization (ie when radiation strips
one electron or more from an atom and in so doing produces
an electrically unbalanced atom or ion), the chemical
composition of the gene (and also the virus) is changed. This
is called a point mutation. (ibid)
If this point mutation occurs in male reproductive tissue, all
sperm produced by the affected tissue will carry the
mutation, and the mutation will be passed on to offspring
produced if any of that sperm produces fertilization. (ibid)
If the point mutation occurs in a sperm, the mutation is
passed on only if that particular sperm is involved in
If that point mutation occurs in female germ cell producing
tissue prior to the formation of eggs, all eggs produced by
that tissue will carry the mutation and if fertilized, will
transmit the mutation to the offspring. (ibid)
If the point mutation occurs in an egg, the mutation is
passed on only if that egg is fertilized. (ibid)
It is important to note that a single track of ionizing
radiation is all that is required to produce a point mutation in
germ producing tissue (ovaries and testes) and in germ cells
(eggs and sperm). (ibid)
Because genes are self reproductive, (they divide when the
cell bearing them divides) damage to genes is cumulative
The damage to genes is dose independent. It is
irrelevant whether the dose received occurred in a
millionth of a second, during an atomic explosion, or
over an entire reproductive lifecycle. The damage
to future offspring for generations has been done
and cannot be undone. (ibid)
The chromosomes carry the genes. Chromosomes have
varying sensitivity to the effects of ionizing radiation. This
sensitivity is determined by the stage of division the host
cell is currently in. When vulnerable, chromosomes commonly
respond to radiation insult by breaking. The consequence of
breakage depends upon many factors including:
The success of self repair.
The effect of breakage on the ability of genes occupying the
affected strand to express.
The stage of division during which the breakage occurred.
To result in chromosomal damage, ionizing radiation needs
to have an energy level above a particular threshold. Note:
this is not a dose threshold, but an energy threshold. (ibid) (Google “Linear Energy Transfer” or LET)
In 1947 the physicist Douglas Lea concluded that the
deposition of 700eV (electron volts) of energy within the width of a
chromosomal strand by a track of ionizing radiation is
sufficient for that strand to break. 700 eV (electron Volts)
equates to about 20 ionisations. A single alpha particle
traversing a cell has been observed to break chromosomes.
(ibid) (DB once asked me what a safe level of radiation was. Well, there’s the answer. Alpha and Beta, in that order, are more likely than gamma or x rays to achieve sufficient LET but though the odds are lower, the odds still exist.)
Where chromosomal damage prevents gene expression, a
mutation can be said to have occurred by chromosomal
The cell, like the human body as a whole, is largely composed
of water, H20. (ibid)
The effect of ionizing radiation upon the cell is to strip
electrons from the atoms and molecules which comprise the
cell contents. (ibid)
This gives rise to ionized atoms and molecules which are
electrically unbalanced and which are called “free radicals”.
Free radicals are capable of a wide variety of chemical
reactions, all of which are abnormal compared to normal
cellular chemistry. These abnormal reactions may occur very
rapidly and in rapid sequence as the free radicals attempt to
regain electrical balance (neutrality). (ibid)
The most common free radicals are composed of Oxygen
atoms. For example, oxygen is highly reactive (a basis for its
prime function in the metabolism of mammals). When
ionized, oxygen is even more so. (ibid)
For example when water is ionized by radiation, the following
chemical reaction occurs:
H2O + ionization = H20+ + free electron. (“Activated water”
plus a free electron)
This action is defined as a direct effect of ionizing radiation.
The free electron cannot remain so for long. It is captured by
another water molecule to produce:
H2O + e = H2O-
The two molecules thus created (a negatively charged water
ion and a positively charged water ion) by the initial
ionization are called an “ion pair”. (ibid)
The reactivity does not end there however. Being unstable
both ions decompose extremely rapidly :
H20+ —-> H+ + OH.
H2O- —-> OH- + H.
Thus, two free radicals and two stable ions, H+ and OH-
which recombine to give water.
The indirect effects of the original insult to cellular water by
ionizing radiation causing the formation of these ion pairs
and free radicals is the abnormal intermediate reactions the
free radicals enter into prior to reforming as water. The free
radicals are highly reactive and compete for available
electrons, including those from normal molecules held in
weak electrical valence. (ibid)
An example of a commonly observed substance created
abnormally in ionized cells is Hydrogen Peroxide, a highly
reactive and toxic substance. This is formed as follows:
OH + OH → H2O2
Thus the water in cells turns to hydrogen peroxide when those cells are insulted by ionizing radiation.
The above sequence is only one of many such abnormal
sequences which are able to take place within an irradiated
The Hydrogen Peroxide continues the abnormal chemistry
until water or other stable molecule is formed. However, a
common indirect effect of exposure to ionizing radiation is
the formation of ozone, a highly damaging and reactive form
of oxygen, within the cell. This whole sequence direct and
indirect effects takes place within the context of the
functioning cell. The outcome of an exposure or series of
exposures which damages a sufficient number of cells is
radiation sickness and the eventual formation of cells
uninhibited by the normal processes constraining the
uncontrolled growth of cells. (ibid)
A whole category of abnormal reactions may occur, the
results of which result in cellular damage, including the
possibility of chromosomal and genetic abnormality, toxicity
and effects upon other cells, tissues and systems far
removed from the site of the irradiated cell. (ibid)
As a prime function of the cell is to provide the components
needed by the cellular nucleus with which to form genetic
material during cell division, it can be seen that the abnormal
chemical reactions have the potential, even at the level of an
individual track of ionizing radiation, to disrupt this process.
If the cellular nuclear repair mechanism with which mammals
are endowed fail to compensate for this abnormal
functioning, cell death or imperfect cell division may occur.
This is particularly important in two types of cell: Those
which normally divide rapidly, such as the blood and lymph
forming cells, and those cells which do not normally divide in
adults unless injured ie the somatic cells. (ibid)
I believe that two classes of cancer reflect radiation damage
to both class of cell: The Leukemias and Lymphomas and the
cancers of tissues such as the lungs.
Thus both the direct and indirect actions of ionizing radiation
upon the cell and the body as a whole is c h e m i c a l i n
n a t u r e . (Source: “Atomic Radiation and Life”, Peter
Alexander, Pelican Books, London, 1957).
The deliberate exposure of an enemy to ionizing radiation in war is a form of induced chemical warfare. In civil society, social benefits are weighed against the harms or costs to the individual. This is another crux of the nuclear debate, centred around science and society.
Evidence exists which indicates the damage
resulting from exposure to ionizing radiation increases in
cells which are highly oxygenated. The Oxygen atom
possesses a large number of electrons, and is a “large
target” capable of producing a large number of free
electrons. When an Oxygen free radical is formed, it is
capable of initiating a complex and abnormal chain of events
at the atomic, chemical, cellular, organ and organism levels.
Not surprisingly, many chemical substances exist which
result in the same or similar abnormal chemical reactions to
occur within cells. These are called “radiomimetic” chemicals.
One example of this class of chemical compound is Mustard
Gas, as used in World War 1. (Source: “Atomic Radiation and Life” , Peter Alexander, Pelican Books, London, 1957)
Where insult via ionizing radiation and radio mimetic
chemicals occur at the same time, each insult may
compound and multiply the consequences of the other.
The complex events at the level of cell, involving so many
factors, including timing in relation to cell division, the
robustness and reliability of repair mechanisms and the
general ability of a particular individual to cope with damage
and repair, predict that the effects of radiation is not one of
a purely linear nature. Although many outcomes are
foreseeable, there is no way of predicting specific outcomes
on an individual basis.
A Clue from Tobacco Related Cancer Statistics
According to figures released in 2004 by the W e i z m a n n
I n s t it u t e o f S c ie n c e , I s r a e l , “only” 10 – 16% of heavy
smokers develop lung cancer.
The Institutes findings published in the US Journal of the
National Cancer Institute, state that smokers suffer the
consequences of DNA damaged by the constituents of
tobacco smoke. Importantly, the Institute found that a
proportion of people lack an enzyme named OGG which
functions to remove damage caused by toxic molecules,
specifically in this case, the molecules resultant as a result of
smoking tobacco. Smokers lacking the OGG enzyme were
five to ten times more likely to develop cancer than smokers
with normal DNA activity.
The Weizmann Institute’s findings may have important
implications in predicting outcomes of individuals exposed to
While 90% of smokers do not contract lung cancer, smoking is now seen as a leading cause of the disease. For this and other reasons, smoking is recognized as a leading threat to health.
The nuclear military-industrial complex may claim safety for its products using the same logic as the tobacco industry. Future generation will see the equivalence in the folly. Supporters of either undertaking will be seen as the real “Ferals”. The findings may further be applied to arrive at the conclusion that the effects of radiation are based upon the individual, not the group. Hence mass population statistics provide little comfort to vulnerable people.
The Long Way Home
In around 2006, Massey University in New Zealand found high rates of genetic damage in New Zealand’s nuclear veterans. The university ascribed the genetic abnormalities to the veterans’ exposure to ionizing radiation. The abnormalities were photographed and flashed around the world.
About 49 years earlier, in 1957, Peter Alexander included similar photographs in his book “Atomic Radiation and Life”. They were taken prior to publication. I do not know the precise date of these black and white photos. They are less sophiscated than the Massey University photos. However they show the same abnormalities.
In 1984 Dr Carl Johnson called for research into genetic abnormalities suffered by people affected by nuclear radiation released downwind of the Nevada Test site. (JAMA, Jan 13, 1984, Vol 251, No2. ).
The Howard government, contesting that the British Nuclear Tests affected Australians, disputed Sue Roffe’s findings relating to genetic and other health effects suffered by New Zealand and British nuclear veterans. He appointed an AIDS expert, Prof Kaldor, to refute Roffe’s findings. The Health Study, which excluded Aboriginal Australians (again), found that of the many different types of cancer suffered in excess by nuclear veterans, all were due soley to exposure to petrol during service at the nuclear test sites. While petrol fumes in the centre of Sydney at peak hour would undoubtably exceed those experienced at Maralinga during its atomic test rush hours, the range and occurrence of the types of cancers suffered by nuclear veterans are not suffered by Sydney’s occupants. It is hard to make sense of the survey findings. No doubt petrol is a carcinogen. So is atomic radiation. Both have a synergistic relationship in the genesis of disease.
In regard to Australia’s Nuclear Veterans, the “Mortality and Cancer
Incidence Main Findings” document of the Australian Participants in British
Nuclear Tests in Australia Study, June 2006, states the following:
“The cancer incidence study showed an overall increase in the number of
cancers in test participants, similar to that found in the mortality study. The
number of cancer cases found among participants was 2456, which was 23%
higher than expected. A significant increase in both the number of deaths and
the number of cases was found for (figures in brackets show increase in
mortality and incidence):
• all cancers (18% and 23%)
• cancers of the lip, oral cavity and pharynx (50% and 41%)
• lung cancer (20% and 28%)
• colorectal cancer (24% and 16%)
prostate • cancer (26% and 22%).
The number of cancer cases (but not the number of deaths) was also
significantly greater in test participants for the following cancers (figures in
brackets show increase in incidence):
• oesophageal cancer (48%)
• melanoma (40%)
• all leukaemias (43%)
all leukaemias except chronic lymphatic leukaemia (61%).
Other findings included:
• of the 26 mesothelioma cases in test participants, 16 occurred in RAN
personnel, which was nearly three times the number expected
in RAAF personnel, there was nearly double the expected number of deaths
from melanoma, and cases of melanoma were increased by two–thirds.
The increases in cancer rates do not appear to have been caused by
exposure to radiation.”***
Full texts available at:
*** Sounds Like Benson & Hedges or the Marloboro Man circa 1960 were contracted to write that doesnt it?
It is little wonder then, given the military imperative to maintain a nuclear capability, that during a protest at a uranium mine ten years ago, an Aboriginal woman was arrested and along with others was, at least, roughly treated and forced into a shipping container which was then welded shut. The mine’s owner was leasing the land and the aboriginal woman was one of the land’s owners. The police minister at the time was Mr Kevin Foley. He considered the treatment received by the people protesting to be reasonable. As Treasurer, Mr Foley called the protestors “Ferals”. All had their day in court, as Mr Foley refused to settle out of court. The only thing the aboriginal owner was doing on her land was expressing her opinion about nuclear industry. As were all the other people arrested that day.
Who won the Cold War Mr Foley? How can we tell?
As promised, the photos of radiation induced genetic abnormalities, circa 1957 and circa 2006. There’s nothing new under the sun and it’s a slow train coming. A lot of what is “new” isn’t really. It was merely suppressed from 1942 because of war and later because of the secrecy provisions of the US Atomic Energy Act.
Photo of Genetic abnomality published by
Peter Alexander, England 1957..
Photo of Genetic abnormality published by Massey University, NZ circa 2006, supplied to Atomic ExServicemens’ Assoc. Australia by NZ nuclear Veterans
Massey University website:
Under resourced Police rebuked, Foley’s “Ferals” win their case against State of South Australia. Police “just following Foley’s Orders”:
Take the Long way home.
(you miss too much otherwise)
Australian Nuclear Veterans’ Association website under reconstruction after Telstra closed down the original one:
Note: the ANVA IS NOT THE AEA. Two different groups.
Next week: Acid Leach Uranium Mining in the former Soviet Union and South Australia.