Bomb workers' cancer linked to radiation

December 08, 1992|By New York Times News Service

The first independent study of the health records of 35,000 workers at a government bomb plant in Washington state concludes that people exposed to small doses of radiation are four to eight times more likely to contract cancer than previously estimated.

This finding, by a pioneer in radiation epidemiology, Dr. Alice Stewart, follows her 14-year struggle to regain access to the health data. For decades, the federal government had limited access to scientists of its choosing, who have generally concluded that the radiation exposure had done little harm.

Dr. Stewart's study, financed with $1.4 million from the Three Mile Island Public Health Fund, a private foundation established to study radiation after the 1979 accident in Pennsylvania, concludes that 200 of the workers have lost or will lose years of their lives because of radiation-induced cancer.

This contradicts earlier government-sponsored studies that found no additional cancer deaths among employees at the bomb plant, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The new study draws these conclusions that contradict current thinking:

* Even small doses of radiation are four to eight times more likely to cause cancer than previously believed.

* People are far more vulnerable to radiation-induced cancer if the exposure comes later in life. Other scientists now believe that age is not a factor.

* Radiation delivered in small doses over time may carry a higher risk of cancer than radiation delivered in a single dose.

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