What we can do about fallout

The world is going into the hottest year for fallout since testing began. Canada is the hottest country in the world. Here are the simple steps we should already have taken to protect ourselves


What we can do about fallout

The world is going into the hottest year for fallout since testing began. Canada is the hottest country in the world. Here are the simple steps we should already have taken to protect ourselves


What we can do about fallout

The world is going into the hottest year for fallout since testing began. Canada is the hottest country in the world. Here are the simple steps we should already have taken to protect ourselves


THE RUSSIANS held the last nuclear test of their 1962 series in the northern Arctic on Dec. 25. When Christmas Day was over the U.S.S.R. and the U. S. between them could claim the detonation, in 1962, of nuclear devices equal to all previous megatonnage since 1945.

The iodine-131 and strontium-89 from this testing session will already have decayed into insignificance: these are short-lived isotopes. But as this is being written the greater part of the other radioactive debris, including strontium90, caesium-137 and carbon-14, is starting to sift down with the spring rains and, by inference from existing data, will settle more heavily on Canada than on any othei country in the world. Since this is the growing season and the time when livestock are put on fresh pasture, the contaminants will be taken into the food chain more readily than they would at any other time of year, and will thus proceed into the bodies of the populace. This general statement of the situation is easily assembled from recent international literature on the subject of fallout.

Common sense suggests that Canadians have a stake in knowing more precisely what all this means to them — what to expect and what, if anything, they can do. The record suggests that they won’t continued overleaf


get much help or guidance here at home.

No reporter can sufficiently master the complexities of fallout physics to interpret our predicament with authority. Throughout the preparation of this article I have had the advantage of consultation with, and the use of material assembled by, Dr. Ursula M. Franklin, physicist, of the University of Toronto.

For the purposes of the discussion the relevant medical fact seems to be that leading biologists now agree there is no threshold of radioactivity below which the individual escapes scot-free. Any radiation at all does some damage to the living organism — even if it is only the tiny stress reaction that infinitesimally induces premature aging and increases vulnerability to disease. So-called “permissible concentrations” and “protection guides” are merely saw-offs between political, military or economic expedience, on one hand, and medical fact on the other. They are, nonetheless, useful for assessing changes in the fallout situation, and for alerting us to socially unacceptable climbs in radioactivity levels. The U. S. yardstick, set by the Federal Radiation Council, is the Radiation Protection Guide. It suggests a specific limit for yearly whole-body exposure of individuals; a specific limit for the yearly dose directly to the thyroid, the bone marrow and bone tissues; and three specific ranges for intake of iodine-131, strontium-89, and strontium-90. Range 2 is a sort of amber zone, and fair warning to mobilize countermeasures in case the count climbs into the red-light zone, range 3.

Unfortunately, as we enter upon the hottest season of the hottest radioactive year, ever, in the hottest known country in the world, it has to be reported that a Canadian isn't given much idea of how he's doing on anybody’s fallout scale.

Take last year. From the resumption of Russian testing in the fall of 1961 through to July. 1962. a number of midwestern U. S.

cities reported range-3 values for iodine-131 in fresh milk. The reports were so persistent that eventually the localities concerned took countermeasures, either diverting the fresh milk away from the market or switching the cows off pasture to uncontaminated silage. These are simple but effective moves since radioactive iodine decays so quickly that it is impotent a few weeks after the test that produced it.

In Canada no fallout data at all are published, in the usual meaning of the word, since they are available only on written request. Such fallout monitoring as is done is carried out by the Radiation Protection Division, which is a sixtyone-man subsection of the Department of National Health and Welfare that also inspects X-ray units, reactors and the sites of accidents involving radioactive materials. Not until mid-1962 did this bureau begin analysing whole milk from nine locations for iodine-131, and powdered milk from seventeen locations for strontium-89 and caesium-137. (Powdered milk has been analysed for strontiuni-90 since 1955.)

By consulting the division's reports it is now possible to learn that the iodine-131 count in Calgary, Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie and Quebec City was in range 3 all through September and October of 1962, and that the “national” average of the nine test cities was also in range 3 for the two months.

By November, when the figures became available, all these counts had dropped back to range 2, though that, of course, was not reported till December. It is worth noting that iodine-131, like other short-lived isotopes, deposits itself much more freakishly than the main burden of fallout and its count can vary by as much as a thousand percent within a few hundred miles. In September, when Calgary was registering one of the highest average counts on the whole continent, Edmonton milk was not sampled, nor was that of Lethbridge or any part of B. C. but Vancouver. Whether they had much less iodine-131 — or much more — is therefore not known.

From a public health point ol view this is just not good enough.

We are talking about radiation — and radiation at levels that are, to say the least, undesirable. Furthermore there are quick, efficient, practical countermeasures for iodine-131. as well as for the other important short-lived isotope, strontium-89. All that's necessary is to interrupt the fresh food route for a couple of months by diverting whole milk to processing plants,

taking cows off pasture and putting teenagers, pregnant women and babies on powdered milk for the duration. (A baby’s thyroid will receive about ten times as heavy a dose from a given amount of iodine-131 as will an adult’s.) For these measures, though, a competent country-wide monitoring program is necessary, as well as immediate publication of the data. Since the presence of iodine-131 always signals a recent blast, such a program would also give useful advance warning of heavy fallout to come. (It is interesting to note that the timing of an injection of iodine131 in ('anadian fallout last year made it inescapable that contamination was leaking from the underground testing in Nevada.)

For a variety of reasons the strontium-90 program is scarcely happier. It consists of testing one sample of powdered milk per plant per month from each of seventeen plants scattered across the country for activity data that are then averaged for the country as a whole for the year.

The Canadian national average for 1962, for strontium-90 in whole milk, lodged for the first time in range 2, which is supposed to be the alert to review possible countermeasures. And even so the national average cloaks known local counts in East Florenceville, Moncton and Sussex, N.B., and at Megantic, P.Q., that were twice as high, and more, in July, October, November and December. Counts in Calgary were almost as high in the same period. And, with only seventeen sampling sites across the country, there may be other, unsuspected, hot spots.

An equally disquieting flaw in the program is that it is limited only to milk. The Radiation Protection Guide ranges are for total strontium-90 intake and recent U. S. research has made it clear that strontium count in milk is by no means a reliable guide to this total. The U. S., Germany, Japan and the U. K. have long since started analysing representative total diets for strontium content, as well as various raw and processed foods. Some of their results suggest how refined the research must be to be useful. For example, the strontium content of food varies according to where it was grown — and in the U. K. whose monitoring program is a model of sophistication, special areas have been pinpointed where the level of activity is persistently twice as high as the national norm. The same program has uncovered a direct relationship between high activity and high mean precipitation.

All through the food chain equal-

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The slow consequences of last year’s nuclear exercises will visit Canada for another decade

ly interesting discriminations are evident. Tea leaves have a strontium content many times higher per pound than any food plant except whole-

grain cereals, though this is not true of the tea brew' itself. Refining whole wheat into white flour cuts contamination by a factor of eight. Apple cores carry a higher strontium content than the peel.

There are discriminations in the population as a whole: embryos,

babies and teenagers are more vulnerable for they are at stages of maximum bone formation.

And there are discriminations in the strontium deposit within the body.

Recent research shows that radioactive strontium concentrates at specific sites in the bone rather than all throughout it. maximizing the dose at those areas and minimizing it elsewhere.

These findings are important for assessing total strontium intake, but they also suggest means of simple strontium control through food processing or redeployment. As it happens, an effective major countermeasure is already a reality in the U. S. in the form of a milk decontamination

process originally developed by a Canadian, Dr. B. B. Migicovsky, with U. S. Department of Agriculture funds. A pilot plant is already in operation and has succeeded in bringing the cost of the process down to less than a cent a quart. A full-scale plant may be open by next fall. But in Canada no such plant is in prospect and no attempt has been made by anyone even to sort out the legal authority by which the process, which changes the chemical composition of milk, could operate under the Food and Drug Act. Since the process also removes strontium-89, caesium-137 and barium-140 this seems a pity.

Even if all nuclear testing were to have ended forever on Christmas Day at Novaya Zemlya, which the Algerians say it hasn't, Canada will be visited with the awful consequences of last year's exercise for another decade.

At the very least we need to map our hot spots for the evidence is that areas of high activity persist in being areas of high activity. We could start by reassigning some of the twenty-four meteorological stations that routinely monitor gross radioactivity in the air and in precipitation: more than a third of them are in Arctic outposts which have no relevance to pinpointing health hazards to humans. Once the crucial fallout patterns can be penciled in, we need to move in and take soil samples and test the standing water that livestock may drink.

We need to test our own drinking water. We are the only civilized country that does not check levels of radioactivity in our water supply at all.

We need to learn more about caesium-137, which we began measuring only last year. Almost all we know about it that is useful, so far. from a public-health point of view is that it moves freely through the whole body, irradiating the tissues; that it has a half-life nearly the same as strontium90's and that roughly two thirds of our intake may come in meat.

We need to inform ourselves on what intake limits of the various isotopes should call for countermeasures, as well as what those countermeasures should be, and we need to decide who should have the authority to put the countermeasures into effect. It is probable that provincial departments of public health should be operative bodies, with local and district medical officers of health acting as their agents, as in cases of epidemic or the administration of milk pasteurization.

We need to know a very great deal more about the medical cflcct of the presence in the body, simultaneously, of the various radioactive isotopes in various doses.

We need above all, more data — and a sophisticated communications network feeding measurements and interpretation from monitoring stations and radiation laboratories to the public-health officials and thus to the public itself.

Whatever else fallout is. it is a subtle, essential interference with man's biological situation — a sciencefiction kind of thing. In the sciencefiction books, if you remember, the people who don't make out are the ones who don't catch on to w hat s happening, the ones who are willing to gamble that it's nothing crucial, and the ones who tail to adapt. ★