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Downwinders
radiation exposure
Communities downwind of nuclear testing sites bear the brunt of negative health outcomes from radiation exposure.

For decades during the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union’s focus on nuclear technology intensified, and the threat of nuclear exposure was a constant source of fear and anxiety. But as the Cold War ended during the early 1990s, attention shifted to the impact of nuclear fallout and radiation exposure, made worse by the news of Chernobyl and other nuclear disasters in communities adjacent to nuclear power plants. 

Today, this fear is channeled into the potential impact of naturally occurring radioactive materials in our homes, in the air we breathe, and even those we are exposed to during medical procedures. But what role does radiation and nuclear exposure play in daily life, and what impact can it have on our health and well-being?

According to Dr. Rahul Bhandari at Tampa Bay Radiation Oncology, the medical community is progressively learning more about the types of radiation exposure and what amounts can lead to future health detriments, such as cancer. 

Interestingly enough, there is no one type of cancer more prevalent than another caused by radiation exposure. Other health risks include thyroid issues and acute radiation syndrome, among others. Children of people exposed to significant amounts of radiation are more prone to develop cancer as adults, and fetuses are at risk of birth defects if exposed to radiation in the womb.

“Unfortunate mega-scale, radiation-related occurrences from the past, such as the two nuclear bomb events in Japan decades ago and nuclear power plant explosions similar to the one linked to Chernobyl, have been providing scientists with a wealth of radiation-related information,”

Bhandari says. “From day zero of each event to this very day, radiation experts have been tracking the effect of radiation’s exposure to the surrounding land, air, water, soil, animals, plants and food.”

As Bhandari explains, the same can be said about the aftermath of nuclear tests and what that radiation exposure can cause in the present day. “Most importantly, we are discovering valuable information on the acute and chronic consequences of radiation exposure to the individuals exposed, and even their offspring,” Bhandari says. 

According to the CDC, more than 500 nuclear weapons tests were conducted in the U.S. and globally, all before 1963. “Depending on the size and type of weapon that was exploded, some of these particles and gases traveled great distances before falling to earth where people could be exposed to radiation,” the CDC website states. 

Continuing research has paved the way to better understand the cause and effect relationship between radiation dose and its effects, which then translates to how healthcare professionals dictate protective measures and treatments for any future exposure.

Types of Studies

Compared to studies that focus on radiation from environmental, medical and occupational sources, studies on nuclear testing and its radiation fallout have provided relatively little information on dose-response outcomes, given the inherent difficulty of accurately collecting data on these populations.

Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, says cancer research is still dominated by developed countries, including research pertaining to nuclear and radiation exposure.

“Most of Africa and Asia still depend on other countries for research and fact-finding related to cancer,” Khubchandani says. “Even if there are studies in these regions, there is often funding or major involvement of scientists from developing countries.” Khubchandani notes researchers out of northern Africa claim “devastating” health effects, but these researchers don’t have the capacity or resources to show empirical evidence. He also notes the need for decontamination across the continent, due to nuclear waste and spills from past decades.

Nuclear testing fallout has continued to be the subject of thorough study since they first started taking place. “With all the research conducted over the last several decades on radiation exposure, scientists have been able to develop statistical models on the radiation dose-response relationship, which can then also be utilized to calculate one’s lifetime radiation-related risk across different scenarios,” Khubchandani says.

So, although correlations of consequences are difficult to directly associate with nuclear tests, well-studied and established models can be used to predict an individual’s risk, depending on specific factors. One of the most significant is proximity of a person’s home or workplace to a nuclear testing site. However, if a person doesn’t live in close proximity to a site, they are still at risk of exposure through their food and drink, as it could have been grown or collected in an affected area.

Areas of Concern

The desert belt, which includes parts of Arizona, California, Utah and northwestern Mexico, has seen a lot of nuclear testing over the years. The first nuclear test in the U.S. was at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of Las Vegas, on Jan. 27, 1951. So, how has radiation exposure affected desert belt populations? 

Bhandari says this continues to be studied, and we are continuing to learn even more information with every subsequent year since these tests were first conducted. This is because the time passed since each exposure itself gives scientists more insight on what the chronic, or long-term, effects of radiation exposure can look like.

“We do know that since the above-ground nuclear tests were stopped several decades ago, radiation in air readings today is well-below risk and regulatory limits, and it has been continuing to fall with time,” Bhandari says. “However, we are better identifying dose exposure’s relationship to certain health detriments, such as thyroid issues; and of course, different types of cancers, such as leukemias.” 

Even though it is difficult to pinpoint exact cause-effect data points to nuclear fallout occurrences near nuclear testing sites, cancer experts are able to better assess risk to individuals when accounting for variables such as proximity to nuclear testing, or the types of radionuclides involved.

Protective Measures

As with any known cancer-causing element, it is important to take a proactive approach and stay informed about any risks in or around your area. Local and national government agencies are dedicated to researching radiation exposure and setting protection standards to best protect the general population.

These radiation safety agencies and personnel take radiation exposure extremely seriously, according to Bhandari, especially as these agencies are more in tune with its hazards.

“Over the last several decades and ever apparent today, there have been numerous institutional, local and national organizations put into place to strictly regulate the use of any type of radiation, monitor radiation use and limit its exposure to the public,” Bhandari says. These agencies have strict protocol and quality assurances in place to thwart known incidences of radiation exposure, which were unintentionally ignored in the past. 

For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) utilizes a system of radiation monitors, called RadNet, to assess background radiation levels in areas across the country. The EPA’s website provides information to help individual’s stay well-educated and prepared in the case of any radiation-related events. 

“Another route is to reach out to your personal family physicians about any concerns you may have,” Bhandari says. “They will be able to guide or refer you to a professional who will be more qualified to help with any personal concerns.”

Despite all this, according to Bhandari, research continues, and we are heading in the right direction to one day be able to better prevent or prepare for future exposures.

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