Source: Forbes | James Conca | December 21, 2015
Last week the McClatchy newspaper chain published a sensational report that suggested over 30,000 nuclear workers at weapons facilities across the United States died from radiation-induced cancer when, in fact, it’s impossible to show that even a dozen did.
Over 50,000 workers who worked at U.S. weapons sites over a period of about 40 years have received monetary compensation if they got cancer, regardless of whether the cancer was caused by radiation or not. However, authors Hotakainen, Wise, Matt and Ehlinger of this report decided that if someone received a payment that meant their cancer was caused by radiation.
Which is nonsense. These payments were made without any relationship between the cancer and the radiation exposure of each recipient. This was a program to help our Cold Warriors who got cancer for any reason, most of which had nothing to do with their workplace.
Nuclear and radworkers have little or no increased cancers or mortality relative to the general population (1,2,3,4,5). Documented radiation doses for almost all nuclear workers have been close to the natural background levels that all people on earth are exposed to. There simply has never been enough dose to enough workers to cause any but a relatively small number of cancers over the expected number in the general population.
In this report, the McClatchy authors played on the emotions and sorrows of people going through heartbreaking end-of-life illnesses to create fear and outrage, and obfuscate scientific data pertaining to biological effects of radiation. They also suggested that nuclear and radiological safety scientists are unethical. My colleagues in the scientific community are appalled at this report. Having worked as a scientist at many of these weapons sites over the last 30 years and witnessed the dedication and sacrifice of so many people, I am, too.
Twenty years ago, the Department of Energy was faced with trying to figure out what few cancers, out of 50,000 or so cases, were from radiation received by workers in the nuclear weapons complex. The nuclear worker populations, and surrounding public, have always had about the same rate of cancers and mortalities as in the general American population. So it is difficult to identify a few additional work-related cancers in the tens of thousands of expected cancers.
Complicating the issue was the presence of many othertoxic and carcinogenic agents at these same workplacesthat could cause more harm than the typical levels of radiation that workers were exposed to – things like asbestos, beryllium, heavy metals and toxic organic solvents, none of which were monitored and regulated like radiation. In fact, radiation is such a weak mutagenic, carcinogenic and cytogenic agent that scientists knew finding those few cancer needles in the greater cancer haystack was impossible.
So Congress enacted the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act of 2000. It was signed at the end of the Clinton Administration and became law in July of 2001. This program allowed workers to apply for monetary compensation if they had contracted an illness, especially cancer, while working at weapons facilities. The Bush Administration had the task of implementing this law, which involved four cabinet level departments – Labor, Energy, Justice and HHS. The payment and legal responsibilities were transferred to the Department of Labor.
Initially, the program was guided by the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health at the Centers for Disease Control, chaired by Dr. Paul Ziemer, former Assistant Secretary of Energy, and comprised of competent scientists. The Board and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) devised a scientifically sound and fair method to perform dose reconstruction calculations for individual workers based on their actual radiation exposure records. Uncertainties in the calculations were found in favor of the claimant. When a radiation dose was found to be at least 50% probable that radiation could have caused a specific cancer, the claim was awarded.
But after several years, the government decided to pay out to more workers, and adopted the “special exposure cohort” method of resolving claims for all DOE sites, regardless of the quality or completeness of actual radiation exposure records. Under the special exposure cohort method, if workers had any one of 22 specific cancers that could have conceivably been caused by radiation, and met various work and time criteria, they were awarded their claims regardless of their actual radiation exposure, many of which had had no exposure at all. Even though 99% of these specific cancers are caused by other means than radiation, all a worker had to do was prove employment at a site for a minimum of 250 work days prior to a certain date.
No relationship between the cancer and the individual’s radiation exposure was necessary, so it would have been unwise for any worker not to apply for compensation.
And that’s fine. No one wants to stop anyone from getting extra money if they’re sick, and most people think the government should support its warriors, Cold or otherwise. But there was, and is, no direct relationship between these payouts and radiation-induced cancer. Clever wording throughout the McClatchy report implies that the authors were aware this, particularly as they claim to have “analyzed 70 million records in the Federal Data Base obtained under the Freedom of Information Act” and would have known this history.
But Congress never understood the ramifications of their legislation, which has given more than $13 billion to 53,000 former workers. This has convinced people that their employment actually caused their cancers, something the McClatchy authors played upon in their report. But this is extremely improbable and not scientifically supported. It’s just that you can’t prove one way or the other for a specific person, so it’s best to just pay out to as many people as you can. Of course, many workers have not been compensated for a variety of reasons, and since these decisions did not have anything to do with radiation doses, they are justifiably confused.
These McClatchy journalists decided, without any scientific support or serious discussion with nuclear or radiological scientists, that anyone who got money actually got cancer from radiation. They thought it was OK to say that radiation is thousands of times more dangerous than we know it to be. They even questioned the qualifications and ethics of radiation protection scientists charged with providing safe working conditions for nuclear employees.
Maybe Hotakainen, Wise, Matt and Ehlinger think they’ll get a Pulitzer Prize or something, but using heart-felt stories about people dying in order to misrepresent an administrative program that was meant to give nuclear workers extra health care, is shameful.
McClatchy will never print an apology or a retraction, so it will be very difficult to reverse this wrong idea in the minds of Americans who have read this report. Now some people won’t get CT scans or X-rays when they need it, all because these reporters thought they had some big exposé. Hopefully, it won’t rise to the “Vaccine Causes Autism” scare.
But this Christmas, McClatchy gets a bag of coal for being naughty.