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Fallout Fears (video)
October 30, 2002

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Interviewee: Andrew Karam, University of Rochester.

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Produced by Brad Kloza

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy ABC News and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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North Korea is only the latest of a growing group of nations developing nuclear weapons. Should we be concerned about nuclear fallout reaching the U.S. if a war broke out overseas?

“If there’s a nuclear war somewhere that doesn’t involve the US—if it’s across the Atlantic or the Pacific, if it’s thousands of miles away—it’s just going to be significantly different than anything that would be on U.S. soil,” says Andrew Karam, Radiation Safety Officer at the University of Rochester. “And the biggest reason for that is because the debris, the fallout, all of that would have to travel thousands of miles before it would get to the U.S. and settle out and start to expose anybody. So just the distance factor, and effectively the dilution of the fallout as it travels across the oceans or around the world, is the biggest thing that would reduce the health effect on the people of the U.S.”

Karam is a founding member of the Health Physics Society’s Homeland Security Committee. He says that when thinking about a small-scale nuclear war abroad, we should consider the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia as a benchmark for how much fallout would cross the oceans. In the case of Chernobyl, fallout did reach the U.S. “[But] just because we could measure it didn’t mean it was dangerous or significant,” says Karam. “It was just something we could measure.”

In fact, Karam feels that radiation is largely perceived as being more dangerous than it really is, citing a “constant stream of propaganda, misinformation, overinformation… about the hazards and the horrors of radiation.”

“People consider radiation to be much more dangerous than the medical and biological evidence shows,” he says. “And that exaggerated concern about radiation has led people to be more aware of it, so every time a story comes up—x-rays, dirty bombs, food irradiation, nuclear war—it just serves to heighten the fears that people already have and to make radiation more dangerous that maybe it ought to be.”

Karam says that a so-called dirty-bomb explosion would also not pose much of a radiological risk, if any.

“The explosion itself will be bad enough,” he says. “People’s heightened fears of radiation will add to that, and their response to those fears will serve to make that explosion even worse than it had to be.”
That is, there will be a secondary death toll from people panicking and having heart attacks or getting in car accidents, or people not getting necessary medical attention because concerned (but otherwise healthy) people are flooding emergency rooms. And Karam says this danger would likely outweigh the danger presented by radiation.

“The radiological risk from a dirty bomb explosion is going to be very small if not nonexistent,” he says. “There may be no radiological risk from a dirty bomb at all except for the people who put the bomb together.”

Meanwhile, in Japan…

Earlier this month, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that Japanese atomic bomb survivors had an increased incidence of nervous system tumors. The study used information from tumor registries, medical records and death certificates of more than 80,000 survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the survivors were at a particularly high risk is for benign tumors called schwannomas, even moderate radiation exposure was associated with many types of nervous system tumors.

These effects are limited to the area where the bomb was detonated, however. “Radiation exposures to people not in the immediate vicinity of small-scale nuclear weapons would be considerably lower than anything we could study in the Japanese atomic bomb survivor studies,” says study author Dale Preston, of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Japan. “Any changes in cancer rates for these people would be extremely small.”



by Brad Kloza


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