Fall-Out Fever

The American people have grown increasingly apprehensive about the dangers of radioactivity and the fall-out of the H-bomb. The official protest of Japan, the petition organized by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling and signed by 2000 American scientists, the hearings recently conducted in Washington, are all indications of our need for a more in formative policy in Washington. DR. ERNEST C. POLLARD, a long-standing nuclear physicist who stresses that need in this article, is chairman of the biophysics department at Yale University.


THE past few yours have witnessed a rising tide of doubt, uncertainty, worry, and even hysteria over the fact that the testing of atomic weapons is subjecting mankind to a radiation hazard. I recall an interview with a newspaper reporter in Norway two years ago where the subject was brought up and where, in order to give an innocuous answer, I made the statement that at least Norway was further away from the tests than the U.S.A. To my surprise,

I was quoted in a most unfortunate context, and the whole affair revealed a degree of sensitivity which has characterized the situation everywhere. Such an experience is sobering to a scientist, who is continually in contact with laboratory affairs; it reminds him that many human beings are intensely worried and are uncertain whether there actually is a menace or whether they are to believe those who say that there is no danger at all.

There is plenty of reason for this uncertainty. We have begun the use of cosmic power, and there are deep-seated fears that it will be misused or that it can turn to our harm. For many years we have handled coal and oil and so employed the primordially stored energy of solar radiation. We have gradually become familiar with this source of power, which is about twice as effective as the familiar wood fire.

But now we have come to experiment with a different kind of primordially stored energy. In rearranging not a few atoms, but a few nuclei of atoms, we no longer produce effects which are just twice or three times that of the familiar wood fire: now we produce energy releases a millionfold greater. This millionfold factor has come in a period of a few short years, and it is not surprising that people worry about the use of this new energy. Their fear is not helped by the inarticulateness of scientists. The ineptness of explanation by scientists is the key to some of the hysteria which is at present affecting us all.

There has been a growing awareness of fall-out. It began with batches of photographic paper which were spoiled, and spread to laboratories where radioactive carbon dating is done to tell us the age of present things which had in the past been living. Today if a sample of leaves is picked up, ash is made of it, and it is put under a Geiger counter, the radioactivity in the leaves can be detected without much trouble. Three or four months ago I was told that if one wiped off the hood of a car in Washington with a Kleenex and put it under a Geiger counter in the laboratory, the counts would go up from twenty a minute to eight times that number.

There is now measurable radioactivity of a new kind in human beings. The rather unfortunately titled “Project Sunshine” made a study of (among other things) the amount of radio strontium in the ash from children who had recently died. It showed that in terms of the rather gruesome “sunshine unit,” which is one one-thousandth of what is deemed to be the maximum permissible dose of radio strontium, in a good main eases the figure ran around live tenths, and sometimes as much as i wo units could be found. These units are in micromicrocuries of strontium per gram of calcium.) Such radiation was not found fifteen years ago. One hears today of requests for canned food which has been kept from the days before atomic explosions, for a comparison between that radioactivity and the radioactivity present today. This tells us that radioactivity is in all of the food we cat loday. Milk has a high proportion of radio strontium, and the number of sunshine units lo be found in cheese is quite impressive. For example, a Wisconsin Swiss cheese measured as high as ten such units. So now we realize that radioactive fall-out is with us — all-pervading, detectable, and something with which apparently we have to live.

At once the questions arise, how much is there, where is it, what will it do?


ONE of the most surprising and to me reprehensible things in this whole matter has been the strange attitude of the Atomic Energy Commission. It is as though the management of the commission did not see the cosmic nature of the new force which has been released. There has been an attitude that it really doesn’t hurt very much. I have been astonished, at the briefings I have attended where descriptions of precautions against atomic weapons have been made, to find an almost lighthearted air about them. This is the worst kind of articulation. The truth is real and important and people should be told. To illustrate this we have the ease of the Japanese fishermen who encountered fall-out after the first hydrogen bomb. It was a regrettable event, and one of great seriousness. It was first said that the burns encountered were chemical and not the far more serious radiation burns, Gradually it developed that this was not so. The resulting effect in Japan was catastrophic. But there seems to be no realization in the high echelons of the AEC of the profound impact, on public thinking of the new use of cosmic energy. Is secrecy justifiable when we are dealing with cosmic energy?

Into this confused situation W. B. Libby, a relatively recently appointed scientific member of the Atomic Energy Commission, has brought some order. Not nearly enough, but some. We still do not know the character of so-called hydrogen bombs and whether they do indeed involve the detonation of U 238 by fast fission, which would entail monstrous radioactivity; nor do we know what is meant by a so-called “clean” bomb. But Commissioner Libby, quite possibly working under a policy handicap, has given some figures regarding fall-out.

As one might expect, when a bomb explodes. the pieces are radioactive. Most radiouctivity decays in minutes or days, but some, notably radio Strontium, takes twenty years to decay to half strength. So air currents can carry particles with radio strontium all over the earth, and they do.

The radioactivity finds a place in the atmosphere, depending on how high the explosion carries it and the fineness of the dust of which it is a part. There the weather works on it. It drifts, more or less as the meteorologists have learned to expect, and comes down gradually with mild rain or mist.

It will take half a century to clear the stratosphere, and the amount of radioactivity brought down and deposited in sea or soil will increase for a period of ten years or so when the rate of deposition and of radioactive decay will be equal. After this the radioactivity will diminish if we don’t put any more up there.

In judging the real danger of fall-out it is most important to use figures which will apply in ten years. In ten years, with five nations actively testing, the fall-out figures could easily be fifty times what they were in late 1955, when a great many scientific deliberations were begun. If this factor is applied to some of the figures given later, a small hazard becomes one of real seriousness.

In discussions of the effect of radiation on man, we find a new word — “threshold.” This is a politically important matter, because if there is a, threshold — and by this we mean that there is a certain amount of radiant energy in the form of high energy radiation which can be absorbed by living beings and which causes no effect — then it is possible to say that a certain level of testing activity can be carried on with no change whatever. There is, therefore, no cause for worry as long as that threshold is not exceeded. This concept of a threshold is one which has been used by radiologists in making policy for the Atomic Energy Commission. It is a concept to which attention in this article must be given, and there will be reasons given for thinking that there is no threshold. This being so, a strange game of numbers will begin. One can ask, what is the percentage chance that each weapon or so many weapons or so much fallout will produce effects such as cases of leukemia? One can then say how many people died from this cause and present these as deaths which are the responsibility of those who carry out tests. This is a new way of thinking and one which is going to be very difficult to react to.

To make a point which I made at the congressional hearings last spring, suppose one has a car parked at the side of the road and a military convoy comes by, causing a long scratch along the outside of the ear. If the attitude taken by the mililary is that they will examine ears which have been scratched in this way, and that they can tell that the motor runs and that the gasoline system is intact and that the tires work all right and that the visibility is all right and that the steering wheel is operating properly, then they will declare that no damage has occurred to the car at all. Therefore there will be no cause for any complaint and i here will be no reason for reparations from the military, and the convoy will be free to wander from side to side of the road relatively unchecked. But it is quite conceivable that such a seratch, if it were a little more than a scratch, could run the owner a hundred or so dollars in damage and yet at no time would the operation of the car be affected. Yet a damaged car has lost value, and we all know that if a convoy did produce such a scratch in a car we would expect a handsome reparation for it.

A word about the congressional hearings is not out of place. For a scientist who spent two days there it was intensely interesting to watch the scientific reaction. And again ihe problem of the scientists in communication came out in a paramount way. As one after the other of my colleagues rose and stood uncomfortably at the podium and produced his charts or drew his sketches on the blackboard, and used his scientific language in his measured method of description, one could not help feeling this great problem of communication. I could watch a skilled geneticist slowly changing his method of explanation and his speech, to make contact with the minds of the questioners. I well remember the fact that it was a world-renowned geneticist who said that some known number of lives would be lost in future generations through fall-out — possibly a small fraction of those that might be lost from other causes, but he felt that any life lost was a matter of concern. I had a moment of pride in science when I saw the cold and dispassionate but truthful thinking behind this little statement.


RADIOACTIVITY, which is the form of radiation with which we are concerned in fall-out, is really the last feeble gasp of primordial cosmic energy. The beginnings of the universe, when energy was concentrated to a degree we can still not imagine and when the elements were created and began their outward flight, left behind a few remnants still not quite brought to their cold ashlike ending. These elements are the radioactive elements, and a few of them have managed to survive the four billion or so years since they were created. We have learned to separate these carefully and by skillful use to speed up the process of degradation from the primordial active state to the state of most of the remainder of the elements. In this process we gain a tiny fraction of the primordial energy of the cosmic creation. It satisfies us, and we are excited about it, and on the way we make a little radioactivity which is sped up as compared with the radioactivity which held over the energy for the four billion years, but is still a weak and pale form of cosmic energy.

Nevertheless, even this weak and pale form has in it the majesty of the sweep of creation. Each radioactive decay carries with it enormous energy. When it sweeps through matter at close to the velocity of light, energy is released in far greater amounts than we normally encounter in any chemical reaction. This great energy has the potentiality to release the bond between any of the atoms which form the substance of living systems; it is the kind of agent which we are dealing with in fall-out. It is like a super chemical — super reactive, super potent , and mercifully super limited in amount.

Bearing in mind this quality of radiation and its energetic nature, I have to digress for a moment into the nature of living svslems, the working of the cell and the system of cells, and how cells are repaired. In speaking to the congressional committee, I made a plea that we needed more research on fundamental biology, to tell us how the cell works and how cells are fitted together into living systems. The truth is we do not know, and therefore we cannot answer questions we need burningly to resolve. The physicist, who is in many ways twenty years ahead of the biologist today, has insisted on the importance of fundamental research. Fundamental biology needs the same support.

A cell can quickly be seen to be wonderfully complex and almost unbelievably small. Look at your favorite actress or your favorite rose, or even glance at the varied pattern in the fur of a dog, and you will see there something which originated in one cell and indeed in the nucleus of the cell. A human being has 1014 of such cells, all of which originated from one. Because the whole pattern of the hairs of a dog, or of the eyelashes of one’s well-liked actress, or of the petals of a rose must come from this one cell, there must exist an intricacy and perfection of pattern somewhere in that cell which can cause the growth and development and the taking of form. Everything we know about life tells us that the cell does this in terms of large molecular systems, and today research is showing that these molecular systems have a cold integrity, a perfection of their own structure, their own pieces, their own parts, which is passed on from cell generation to cell generation. Present detailed genetic studies can be construed to say that in these molecules of nucleic acid not one atom may be out of place in a total number of atoms which must be on the order of thousands of millions.

Into this marvelously ordered structure, radiation brings its devastating high energy releases. When the track of one of the beta particles released in radioactivity goes through such a nucleic acid molecule it breaks it, and while it has a chance of re-forming as it was before, that chance is low. In the hearings, one of the questions repeatedly asked by several Senators was whether there could not be a mutation of a gene which was favorable in character. This is linked with the molecular form, for the gene has as its basis this same molecular form of nucleic acid. One answer which I heard a geneticist give was that one can just as well expect a mistake on the typewriter to improve the spelling as a mistake in a gene to give an improved result. This analogy is apt and practically complete. The disruptive effect of radiation, regardless of what subsequent restoration may occur, almost certainly carries with it some permanent damage. The damage is a scar in the cell — a scar which may not affect many working parts, but which is as real as the scratch on an automobile and of greater significance, because even an ordinary cell in the body must still, before it has finished its total duty, have given rise to progeny from thirty divisions.

Not everyone agrees with this attitude on radiation, but perhaps not everyone has worked, as my ow n group has worked, on the effect of radial ion on molecules. Certainly we who do fundamental biological work have a deep conviction of the always harmful effect of radiation on the basic codedetermining form-producing molecules in the cell.


Now the medical man does not see this with the same emotional bias, and here is one of the big differences of opinion which occur between scientists. The truth is that unless the germ cell is damaged early, a system of cells like the human body has many cells, not all essential. A cell damaged in a later division may very well continue its function, not having to make more of itself and so build eyelashes, but merely perhaps to help respiration. It can do so, and its place can be taken by a completely healthy cell produced by division from a cell which has not been damaged. Thus the undamaged tend to outgrow the damaged, and the human being recovers remarkably from damage which can reach as many as 80 per cent of the cells which he has in any one part. Thus this 80 per cent damage can be restored by (lie 20 per cent growing out heallhy and fresh and producing new tissue to take the place of the damaged, radiation-affected parts.

To the medical man this means that there is a threshold. This tells him that while there is undoubtedly immediate damage, there is a built-in recovery system which can repair the damage radiation has produced. Keep the cause below a certain figure and the effect will be zero. If one waits, the restorative process will take over and health will return. The medical man has confidence in this theory. He may be right and there may be no cause for worry. But what is feared by all who know the profound genetic character of fundamental biology is that the genetic damage to cells will one day show up. Let me make my point as follows. There is no question that a damaged cell is damaged. There is no question that in many cases it can be restored by a cell which has divided from a healthy one. But has that division been perfect? And if it has been perfect, should it have been perfect? This may seem like a strange question, but it may also come as a surprise to the reader to realize that the cells in his toenails, eyes, ears, nose, and brain all have the same genetic counterpart, and yet there is no similarity at all between a nose and a toenail. The difference lies in the fact that after a certain set of divisions each cell has managed to become functional in a certain way, and this means that at some stage the cell did not divide exactly; therefore there is a little change at a division. Because there is a little change at the division, how do we know that the restored cell has divided right, so that fifty or sixty years later it will stand ready to fulfill the function that it should in a person whose body has aged, has a different cell complement, and is therefore behaving differently?

All the evidence is to the effect that somewhere some of these cells have not got their right parts. They may be susceptible to a virus, and perhaps that virus may cause cancer. They may themselves become cancer cells. They may in some way not be prepared to resist infection, and the fulfillment of the normal body reaction to stress may not be there. This means that radiation will produce a hazard later in life superposed upon t he restorat ion which occurs after the immediate action of radiation itself. Many of us who work in fundamental biology are convinced that there are a number of human hazards such as leukemia, and bone cancer which are, like the effects on the genes in the germ cell, always productive of subsequent hazards.

The whole technical knowledge of radiation and biology is vast and complex. To satisfy the reader who needs statistics I give a table of figures that seem interesting to me. The “roentgen" is a unit which for our purposes can be treated as a relative measure. Its definition is really not more significant than that of a yard. A milliroentgen is one thousandth of a roentgen, and a “sunshine unit” is an amount of radio strontium (otherwise Sr 90) per gram of calcium. The radio strontium, as is all radioactivity, is measured in “curies” — millicuries, microcuries, or micromieroeuries.

A recent analysis by Dr. Lewis shows a clear relation between leukemia and radiation, and some figures are given for the “probability” of acquiring leukemia in a normal lifetime, on account of various causes. The most sobering of these figures is the use of medical X ray s for examination of the fetus before birth, which definitely increases the chance of getting leukemia. I can confidently predict that the use of all X rays will come under question in the next few years. More regulation, faster photographic film, better shielding, and more “just cause" will be introduced during the next decade.


Radiation due to cosmic rays: (milliroentgens per year) -
Sea level 35
20,000 feet 375
Normally present radioactivity 60
Estimated probability of leukemia: (per million of population) -
Per sunshine unit 2
From fall-out in 1965 if testing is not regulated 100
From unavoidable radiation 80
In children subjected to X-ray pelvimetry before birth 300
From all causes 800
Average dose received from medical X rays in 30 years 3 roentgens
Dose to jaw in dental X ray of all teeth 3 r.
Dose to treat various kinds of cancer highly localized 1000 r
Amount required over xvholc body a t one time, to have even chance of killing 400 r.
Genetic defects: -
Live births in U.S. 2 per cent
Amount which will double the number of defective lix'c births 5 to 50 r.

Another aspect of radiation is genetic. We all carry some recessive defective genes, some of which are lethal. Our “insurance" system, as Dr. Crowcalls it, provides us with two sets of genes, and if one is defective the other takes over, or nearly takes over. If both are defective it is too bad. Now human population genetics are very hard because no controlled experiments are possible. But we can estimate that, of our 30,000 genes or so, four are lethal. We can also estimate that between 5 and 50 roentgens will double this number, by their destructive effect on the cell molecular architecture. We can further estimate that of the one in twenty births which are defective, one in fifty is due to these defective genes. So between 5 and 50 roentgens will make this number one in twenty-five and the whole number of defective births will become one in thirteen. It’s not very good odds, and no parents-to-be will road this casually. Further, the geneticist is sure there is no threshold, and that all radiation sources increase this number. As the National Academy report says, eogently and firmly : “Any radiation is genetically undesiralde.

I give a few more figures. It must be remembered that genetic effects require that radiation hit the germ cells, or gonads, and so dental and chest X rays may not he harmful genetically. Also, in treating cancer, we are using a desperate remedy, comparable with surgery, and we are using it to destroy. No doctor is happy when he has to use radiation to treat cancer, even though it may confer great benefit.


THE Atomic Energy Commission has taken the attitude that up to a certain level there is no damage from radiation. Now this is certainly not true genetically. It may be that there is small damage, but not none. The National Academy report estimates that a dose of 10 roentgens would give rise to 50,000 new incidents of tangible inherited defects in the first generation and about 500,000 per generation ultimately, assuming that there are always 10 roentgens in each generation. Fall-out is supposed to produce something like one one-hundredth of this, and therefore we find ourselves talking about 5000 new incidents of tangible inherited defects. This means 5000 new cases of unnecessary sensitivity to disease, or possibly malformation, or stillbirth.

What can he claimed with certainty for genetics can probably be claimed with some justification for pathological effects. This is not no damage, and so the attitude that there is a threshold, and that there is therefore a region of testing in which no damage can occur, is untenable. Time will discredit such a policy, and future generations may not be too kind to those who formulated it. If we can return to the convoy, we see that the very fact that there is an appreciable damage from testing means that there is some responsibility on the part of those who test. Apparently this attitude is not taken by the AEC, and it will not be adopted by the commission until the existence ot radiation hazard has been determined by the courts.

Perhaps the most striking thing about fall-out fever is the question of statistical death. What is the morality of statistical death? If someone runs an automobile into a child and causes death, responsibility has to be assigned. What about the fact that a child’s death due to leukemia can be caused by radiation and that the radiation can be produced by the testing of weapons or even by the running of an atomic plant? The parents of the child do not know that death came from this cause, and yet statistically we know that some children have died from it. At what line do we draw our moral code? To what extent is a hazard of this kind small enough to be borne by the population?

All that will be seen by some people is that we may make a case that weapons testing will result in the unnecessary death of twelve people in the United States per year due to leukemia. These are twelve unnecessary deaths in perhaps 10,000 leukemia deaths, but they are twelve. Are we to say that this is a hateful thing akin to murder, or are we to say that such deaths are simply a necessary sacrifice for our defense, which we as a sturdy race will take in our stride, and so will develop into a tougher future generation? Again the moral lines are hard to draw.

We now come to the question of the value of testing weapons. Certainly if we face a war we face nuclear weapons. Even if we say that like poison gas they will never be used, we must still realize that all nations which fought in the last war had large stocks of poison gas; all nations had the best countermeasures they could devise. The defensive situation is not hopeless unless all possible means of countering it have been faced resolutely. Perhaps we can shoot down the intercontinental guided missile, which is spoken of as the “ultimate” weapon, with atomic warheads. If we can, and if doing so will preserve even one of our large cities, then it’s clear that it’s worth doing so. It is unthinkable to me that we could design and plan this sort of weapon without testing it. So the testing of weapons does do us some good.

The case for weapons testing must be made clearly. Secrecy is almost certainly fatuous, because almost all nations have military intelligences which know as much as would be given away in any explanation to the public. As an example of some of the subtleties of this case, there has been raised a scientific question as to whether the testing of a weapon does not give more away about it than is returned by the actual trial. This is something which needs answering and is a valid point. It was stated clearly, at the congressional hearings, that the biologists had laid out as best they could their case for the hazard from fall-out, and the plea was made that the same clarity, thoroughness, honesty, and integrity be applied to the explanation to the public of the case for weapons testing.

We are using cosmic energy and we have to make our thinking commensurate with it. If we believe that democratic methods can bring us the wisest, way of managing ourselves as people, then we must be informed democratically. Those who keep back this information are open to the suspicion that at heart they do not believe in the democratic process. Every day that information is denied the public this suspicion increases.

Nuclear war is unthinkable. There is a large body of thought which starts from an emotional conviction that the way to stop nuclear war is to stop nuclear testing. I am in full sympathy with such thought. I like it. I am for getting agreement on test limitation. And I doubt that with the aroused interest and the widespread instrumentation now available, any nation can test weapons so as to make fall-out without being detected. What I don’t like is the claim that because of present levels of fall-out it is imperative that we stop testing. A glance at the table of statistics shows just how imperative it is. What that table says is that we must first learn to use our necessary radiation carefully, and then turn our attention to fall-out.

I stress again the words “ present levels.” Nuclear energy is really cheap. Our own nuclear monopoly was short-lived. It will not be long before Israel and Denmark wish to test weapons, let alone Australia and Argentina. In the foreseeable future, testing can rise tenfold. In addition, some new, unexpected, and latently deadly action of low-level radiation may one day be discovered. This possibility is enough to make people ready to support any political move to end testing. I think it is this last piece of reasoning — that the wretched business will spread, and that we don’t know what it may do — which makes partisans out of so many fundamental scientists.

Two tremendous unresolved questions remain. One is the question of the way the living cell works, is built into the body, and functions after damage. Related but far grander in scale, far harder, far more exciting, far more important, is the moral case concerned with statistical death. When we know that by testing weapons, no matter how valuable they may seem to us, our actions will cause the death of a certain number of individuals, what is our morality with regard to this? If we say that if does not matter, are we taking a grim and almost fascistic approach? Is it one that ignores the rights of every human being to live and take his just chances? Or is it simply a realistic facing of biological necessity and living in the light of truth? Until these two questions are answered we can never really proceed with calm and assurance. To answer the first, question, we must intensify fundamental biological research, giving it much more national support. The second question can be resolved only after thorough debate, ultimately by the judgment of public opinion itself.