Devra Davis, PhD, MPH, president of Environmental Health Trust, is an award-winning scientist and writer on environmental health issues, author of “The Secret History of the War on Cancer,” and “Disconnect” who served as the founding director of the Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 1983-93. The opinions expressed are her own.
The discovery of ionizing radiation at the turn of the nineteenth century revolutionized science and society. Within two weeks of their being created at the end of 1895, the stunning x-ray images of his wife’s bejeweled hand that physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had taken appeared in major newspapers around the world. From Paris, to London and Tokyo, scientists and celebrities engaged in a world-wide medical vogue with fashionable x-ray parties featuring popular demonstrations of moving skeletons.
This extraordinary discovery in fact came with extraordinary risks. The same technology that could light up lurking solid tumors of the lung and stomach and save lives on the battle field also damaged the ability of bone to make healthy red blood cells and induced an array of crippling deformities. Girls who worked hand-painting clock dials with luminescent radioactive paint and wet their brushes with their tongues to craft fine lines lost their jawbones years later. Men who chipped uranium out of the earth eventually grew pale as their blood became swamped with white blood cells and bereft of iron by aplastic anemia and leukemia.
These deadly problems were believed to arise only decades after high doses of radiation exposure had taken place. At the time that Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard split the atom in 1934 to produce nuclear energy, many hoped that the dangers of radiation resided solely with massive releases that added up over the long term–the sort that sickened Nobel Laureate Marie Curie and made her notebooks too hot to handle. Donald Hornig, the man who literally sat upon the atom bomb as he developed the wiring for the trigger, once told me that “We all figured we were young, healthy and smart. So long as we didn’t do anything stupid to set things off, we would be fine.”
One of the first irrefutable signs that general population exposures to lower levels of ionizing radiation were not fine occurred two decades after the bombs that ended World War Two, when increased rates of cancers were found in Japanese survivors. Others reported that women exposed to unfocused radiation from fluoroscopic x-ray exams carried out for tuberculosis screening after the war ended had increased risks of breast cancer three decades later and that children treated for ringworm with radiation to their heads had increased brain tumors.