The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 6

B O O K   R E V I E W

Deadly Deceit

Deadly Deceit: Low Level Radiation,
High Level Cover-Up

By Jay M. Gould and Benjamin A. Goldman
New York: Four Walls Eight Windows
222 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Robert Weissman

Deadly Deceit is a terrifying book. By investigating patterns and deviations in overall death rates, infant mortality rates and other measures of national health, Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman have uncovered convincing evidence that low-level radiation releases from nuclear power and weapons facilities are having a much more serious and often lethal effect on public health than previously acknowledged. They also offer evidence of a conscious attempt to distort and cover up information which might have made the dangers of low-level radiation known to the public. Though it deals with technical issues, the book is written accessibly and, because of the crucial importance of its subject matter, deserves a wide readership.

Gould and Goldman begin by examining the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident. They show that in June 1986, one month after the Chernobyl fallout reached the United States, the U.S. infant mortality rate was 12.3 percent higher than the previous June. Mortality levels also increased for the elderly and people with infectious diseases. They conclude that the deaths of 40,000 people in the United States were accelerated by the low-level radiation exposure caused by the Chernobyl accident.

The explosion and ensuing fire at the Chernobyl plant spewed huge amounts of radioactive contaminants into the air, with fallout subsequently registered even in the distant United States. The areas of the United States with the least rainfall in May 1986 had the lowest concentration of radioactive iodine-131 in milk and experienced no change in mortality. The Pacific Northwest, which experienced the heaviest rainfall, had the highest concentrations of iodine-131 and the biggest increase in mortality.

Gould and Goldman also report an unprecedented drop in landbird hatchings in California (a decline of approximately 60 percent) and skyrocketing rates of infant mortality in Europe (which received a much higher dose of radiation than the United States) in the months following the Chernobyl fallout.

The authors argue that most scientists underestimate the lethal effects of radiation because they extrapolate backwards from the high levels of exposure experienced in Hiroshima after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb, assuming, for example, that one-tenth as much radiation will have one-tenth the effect. These scientists do not consider the potential differences between the effects of low-level and high-level radiation.

Deadly Deceit's findings indicate that radiation's impact is "supralinear," which means that it has a proportionately more deadly effect at low levels than at high ones. In Europe, for example, post-Chernobyl radiation levels were 100 to 1,000 times higher than in the United States, but mortality rates rose only 10 times more than in the United States. Other scientists have drawn similar conclusions from their own work, most notably Dr. Abram Petkau, who hypothesized that "low-level radiation generate(s) highly toxic charged oxygen molecules known as 'free radicals' that can destroy cell membranes much more efficiently at low dose rates than at high ones." The implications of the "Petkau effect," validated by Gould and Goldman, are horrifying. It means low doses of radiation, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the nuclear industry have been dismissing as relatively harmless for decades, are far more lethal than previously considered.

Gould and Goldman use other case studies to buttress their argument. They conclude that infant mortality peaked in the areas downwind of Three Mile Island shortly after the overheating plant released large amounts of iodine-131 and other fission gases in 1979. They also find that radiation levels in milk rose significantly in the summer after accidents at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant in South Carolina in the early 1970s, and infant mortality and total mortality peaked during the same periods.

The authors suggest that releases of low-level radiation have had a significant effect on mortality in geographically distant areas through the contamination of milk. They demonstrate a frightening correlation between the operation of the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in milk-producing Lancaster, Pennsylvania and infant mortality in the mid-Atlantic region, especially in Washington, D.C. Even with demographic and socioeconomic factors taken into account, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. fell behind the rest of the country in infant mortality after Peach Bottom started operating in 1966. The evidence in Deadly Deceit suggests that the decline can be attributed to milk contaminated by Peach Bottom and consumed in these cities. (Fifty percent of the milk sold in the mid-Atlantic region comes from within 50 miles of Peach Bottom.) When the NRC closed down Peach Bottom in May 1987, "infant mortality in D.C. returned to about the same rate as in the rest of the U.S. for the first time since the reactor station began operating in the mid-1960s," dropping from a peak the previous month of three and a half times higher than the rest of the nation.

In their most far-reaching hypothesis, the authors explore the correlation between atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and a levelling off of infant and total mortality rates. This flattening, they explain, runs counter to the historical trend in which both infant and total mortality rates have declined with improvements in nutrition, sanitation and medicine. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the trend stopped. They attribute this to the fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, which the National Resources Defense Council has calculated as equivalent to 40,000 Hiroshima bombs in the period 1945-1962. "The cumulative difference between these expected rates [had mortality rates dropped at their historical pace] and those actually observed comes to some nine million excess deaths [in the United States]."

Gould and Goldman's work is based on an elaborate data base constructed from information collected by the Census Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Cancer Institute and the National Center for Health Statistics and obtained with the help of the Freedom of Information Act. In each of their case studies, they found that government-collected information had been altered in some fashion. For example, the Pennsylvania infant mortality rate published in Monthly Vital Statistics Report was revised downward to an unprecedented degree in the finalized Vital Statistics of the United States, and data for California, Minnesota and Illinois were missing from successive issues of Monthly Vital Statistics Report in the months following the Three Mile Island accident. These highly irregular omissions preclude a comparison of mortality rates in areas near Three Mile Island with the rest of the country because the baseline U.S. mortality trend cannot be calculated. The authors conclude that "the most disturbing explanation [for the widespread statistical irregularities], but unfortunately the most convincing one, is that there has been a conspiracy orchestrated from the highest reaches of government and begun in the early days of the Cold War."

Conspiracy theories always invite skepticism, and this one is no exception. But the authors' discovery of reporting errors related to Three Mile Island, Savannah River and Chernobyl--in otherwise accurate records--lends credence to their accusation. And the U.S. government's record of concealing important information about nuclear mishaps, most notably the 18-year cover-up of the accidents at the Savannah River plant, suggest that a conspiracy is not outside the realm of possibility.

The evidence supporting the conspiracy theory is only circumstantial, however, and the authors occasionally slip and assert it as fact rather than speculation, constituting one of the few weaknesses of the book.

Still, the evidence presented in Deadly Deceit is compelling enough to merit a Congressional investigation into a possible conspiracy to cover up the effects of low-level radiation. More importantly, the book should spark an immediate, large-scale exploration of the effects of low-level radiation. So far the impact in the United States has been disappointing. The book has sparked greater interest in Europe, however, largely because Chernobyl had a larger health and political impact there, Gould told Multinational Monitor. He has been asked to tour Switzerland, which is having a September referendum on whether to continue its nuclear power industry, and he anticipates tours in England and Germany as well.

The dangers exposed in Deadly Deceit demand attention in the United States as well. As an immediate step, Gould says, every city should set up independent commissions to monitor milk radiation. He also calls for the abolition of the nuclear power industry. "Every nuclear reactor has to be closed down," he says. "Not only here, but worldwide." He believes that the next Chernobyl will spark enough popular outrage to shut down the industry, but he hopes a complete shutdown "comes before the next accident." His book explains why: low-level radiation from nuclear power will continue to kill people in the interim, and the next major accident, like the ones which have preceded it, will have far more serious consequences than policymakers and scientists have acknowledged.

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