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Health effects: long term and indirect

Cancer

Radiation-induced cancer has a long latency period, sometimes emerging over 40 years after exposure. The first cancers to emerge are usually thyroid cancer and acute and chronic leukaemia, followed by breast and lung cancer and later by stomach and intestinal cancer. At the end of the 1970s a significantly increased cancer incidence was found in less exposed cohorts, suggesting that even lower doses could be carcinogenic.

Genetic damage

Ionizing radiation can cause significant damage to genetic material even at quite low doses. There was a rise in the number of miscarriages and stillbirths after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and children in the womb at the time of the bombings often showed physical and mental developmental problems; many were severely disabled. Atmospheric nuclear testing and the reactor disaster at Chernobyl has provided more information but the scientific community is divided over the conclusions that can be drawn.

Other effects

In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, autopsies of those who died within 5 years of the blast described poor blood clotting and bone marrow damage. Blood disorders, including anaemia and low blood counts, can last for up to 10 years after exposure. Cataracts are common.

In addition to the effects of a nuclear explosion there are significant dangers posed by the manufacture of nuclear weapons and even the use of nuclear power. Groups who have been most affected include: armed forces participants in atmospheric nuclear testing, people living ‘downwind’ of nuclear power sites such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, workers in uranium mines, uranium enrichment and reprocessing plants, and weapons production facilities, and people exposed during deployment, transport or handling and maintenance of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear tests

Between 1945 and 2010, 2059 nuclear weapons were detonated. These included 528 tests above ground that released large amounts of strontium-90, caesium-137, carbon-14 and plutonium into the environment. The worst affected people, called ‘downwinders’, were living in areas of heaviest fall-out. Up to three million cancer deaths may have been caused by nuclear testing worldwide. If we include the cancers caused by incorporated radiation - radiation from particles taken into the body through inhalation or ingestion that have stayed there - the number could be 30 million. We will never know how many cancer deaths are caused by nuclear fallout as the cause of cancer cannot always be reliably identified and there is often more than one causative agent.

Exposure to strontium-90 is measured in children’s milk teeth. After the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which banned testing above ground in 1963, strontium dental levels decreased to almost 0. In 1986 after the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl they shot up again.

Weapons production and the nuclear fuel cycle

Many of the production processes for nuclear energy are the same as for nuclear weapons, including uranium mining, conversion and enrichment, nuclear reactors, reprocessing plants, and waste repositories. Because radioactive material is handled by people, all these processes inevitably create significant health hazards. It was thought for many years that the body can tolerate very low doses of radiation, but this is now questioned.

‘The preponderance of information indicates that there will be some risk [of cancer], even at low doses’, says the Committee to Assess the Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionising Radiation of the US National Academy, Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (BEIR) VII. The committee ‘judges it unlikely that a threshold exists for the induction of cancers but notes that the occurrence of radiation-induced cancers at low doses will be small’ (National Research Council 2006).

Climate change

Even a limited nuclear exchange could change the global climate by injecting of large amounts of soot into the atmosphere by the widespread burning of cities. This is similar events to the effect of large volcanic eruptions which inject dust into the atmosphere. The resulting reduction in global temperatures, especially over land, would cause crop failure and mass starvation.

Cost of nuclear weapons

The indirect effects on health of the production and possession of nuclear weapons are most clearly seen when looking at the amount of government funds spent on them - money that could otherwise be dedicated to health, education, welfare and poverty alleviation. From 1940 to 1998, the US spent an estimated $5.5 trillion (€3.85 trillion) on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programmes (Schwartz 1998). This does not include the future costs of storing and disposing of more than 50 years’ worth of accumulated toxic and radioactive waste, dismantling nuclear weapons systems and disposing of surplus materials, estimated in 1998 to be another US$340 billion (€238 billion). Spending government funds on nuclear weapons programmes in countries like India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran, where many people live on less than a dollar a day, deprives them of money that could save their lives and educate their children.

For more information and further reading, see the ‘See Also’ section below.

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