In her new book No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, Dr Rosalie Bertell explains that we face extinction even if the nuclear war never happens.
Bertell quantified the link between medical X-rays and the incidence of leukemia and other diseases when working on the Tri-State Leukemia Survey in Buffalo, New York. Her research suggests that radiation has already caused about 16 million casualties worldwide.
Bertell is the director of the Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto. We spoke with her in April about her research, and how she thinks we can get out of the mess we're in.
CANDIS: You've had an unusual combination of careers -- as a nun and as a scientist. Are many of the women in your order so unusual?
Rosalie Bertell: My community, the Grey Nuns, was founded in Montréal in about 1738, by a mother of two children who had been widowed at 29. She ran a brewery to fund her hospital, where she took care of the Indians, French, and British soldiers. (Laughs). It must have been uproarious on occasions. Whatever needed to be done, she did. The Sisters took care of the elderly, opened the first foundling home in North America, and took care of prostitutes and anybody else who needed help. Our community has no European roots and also we never had a male community in charge of us. We travelled to the West in the covered wagons with the people. We now serve extensively in the north with the Inuit. We're in North and South America, Asia, and Africa. It's a community that has stayed close to the people.
CANDIS: Did you enter it as a young woman?
Bertell: I first entered a contemplative community. I spent five years as a Carmelite .
CANDIS: My word! You're the first ex-Carmelite I've ever met.
Bertell: Much of my feeling for ecology comes from living in Carmel. We grew our own food, did our own electrical wiring and our own plumbing. We did a really neat irrigation system on our whole farm in Buffalo.
CANDIS: 1t is an order that doesn't speak, isn't it?
Bertell: Well, we had recreation twice a day, for a half an hour.
CANDIS: And the rest of the time...
Bertell: We kept silent, and prayed. I liked it. But the manual labour was too much for me and I had a heart attack, so they advised me not to stay. I entered the Grey Nuns in 1959. Afterwards l got a doctorate in math I already had a background in physics and chemistry, and the community wanted me to teach biology, so I got the equivalent of a master's degree in biology and biochemistry. I have taught all of the sciences and math on a university level.
In about '69 I went to our college in Buffalo, and began working part time at the Rosswell Park Memorial Institute, which is both a hospital and a very large cancer research centre I was looking for all kinds of environmental and hereditary factors that were increasing the leukemia rate. Then I had another heart attack, which I think was stress-related, and so I stopped teaching.
CANDIS: Has that kept you healthy since then?
Bertell: (Laughs) Yes. So I went into fulltime research into the causes of the increase in leukemia. There I discovered what the ordinary medical X-rays were doing.
CANDIS: How worried should one be about getting a chest or dental X-ray?
Bertell: Well, you don't have one lightly or routinely. It would be silly not to have an X-ray if you're really in pain but to go for a chest X-ray every year because you work in a hospital is an abuse and shouldn't be happening.
Anyway, I was investigating the effects of low levels of radiation that are well within the limits that are permissible to the nuclear industry and uranium mining. This kind of radiation mimics the effects of the natural background radiation that we get from the cosmos or from naturally-occurring uranium in the ground or in our building material. The most obvious thing that this radiation does is to make us grow older. Our chronological age is a very accurate measure of how much natural background radiation we've been exposed to.
CANDIS: You mean, if we could get away from radiation we'd stay younger?
Bertell: Well, it's not affecting every old age symptom, but it's connected with gray hair and the breakdown of biosystems. For example, in old age diabetes, the person produces insulin but it's not effective in dealing with the blood sugar, so something has happened to the insulin templates in the pancreas. As we get older, we may become unable to produce good antibodies, so we become allergic to things. Or we can't produce the enzymes needed to digest the foods we used to eat. The biochemical breakdown is subtle and happens over time.
CANDIS: And it all can be traced to radiation?
Bertell: Radiation is the main pervasive thing. If we increase the pollutants in our environment or the radiation we're exposed to, we make the process go faster. One of the old age diseases is cancer, so when the radiation increases in a population, cancers occur in younger people. Anyway, that was how I got into studying the subtle effects of radiation at "permissible" levels.
CANDIS: Does your religious order give you lots of support in what you're doing:'
Bertell: Yes, a lot of moral support. My community is poor, so I don't get financial support, and in fact I have to earn enough to contribute to our elderly. But good moral support. They sec it's what's needed.
CANDIS: I'm looking forward to reading your book. I hear you've won a prize already for it.
Bertell: Yes. In Britain they named Holy Week "Peace Week." A committee for Peace Week chose what they called the "twenty best peace books since 1945." And they chose mine as one of the twenty, all of which are being featured in Britain this week. It's also been chosen by two book-of-the-month clubs.
CANDIS: Has your research been repressed much? Are there forces in society that don't want people to know what you're finding out about the effects of radiation?
Bertell: Well, the effects of radiation are the health effects of an atomic bomb, so that information has been "classified" in the States since 1945, when the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission was set up. While certain papers are screened and released, the data base itself has been secret. But some scientists who speak out are being attacked and their research condemned: They've had their own separate data bases, so they've challenged the findings of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which according to the nuclear governments, is the "classic study." If a scientist's findings are not in line with the classic study, then he or she must be wrong.
CANDIS: That "classic" study was based on a follow-up of the victims of Hiroshima?
Bertell: That's right.
CANDIS: You mean that those victims were not typical of radiation victims in general?
Bertell: That's right. First of all, they didn't even form a research population until 1950. That meant that anybody who had been below average in health or stamina at the time of the bombing probably was not even alive in 1950 to get into the study. The survivors in the study were therefore heartier than average and hence any estimates based on them would be biased. There have been other problems with the atomic bomb studies. Right now they're redoing all the Hiroshima studies because of what I would call, bluntly the falsification of the doses to the victims.
It's a question of how much of the Hiroshima radiation was gamma and how much was neutrons. A researcher at Oak Ridge Labs did the original calculations, which became the basis for estimating what proportion of the excess cancers should be assigned to gamma and what proportion to neutrons. Now that's a very important calculation, because normally the general public doesn't get any neutron exposure. So if you increase what you estimated was neutron and decrease what you estimated was gamma, you get less cancer attributed to gamma, the kind of radiation to which the public is normally exposed. And so you under estimate the cancers that would be caused by gamma. The original calculations have been challenged by other government scientists.
When pressed to show his original papers, the Oak Ridge researcher John Auxier announced that they had "accidentally" been fed to the shredder. And so the outcome of this has been an in-house study in the department of energy to re-do all of the calculations of the atomic bomb.
CANDIS: Are you saying that he was pressed to hide his results?
Bertell: I think it was a military manoeuvre to make the radiation at low doses seem safer than it was. Once you send dose estimates over to the researchers, you could have the best health effect researchers in the world, but they're trying to calculate how much cancer is caused by various doses, and they take the doses as given. So they could be doing excellent research, but the doses are wrong, there's a systematic error right through all the papers. That's what they're now trying to re-do, but they're doing it as a secret in-house study.
CANDIS: So the things that people need to know in order to take care of themselves, as public health, that's ...
Bertell: Yes, that's a military secret!
CANDIS: What can be done about that?
Bertell: Well, the bottom line is, who's going to handle the stuff? Who's going to do the uranium mining and milling and run the power plants and separate the plutonium and deal with the waste and transportation if it's hazardous? So it doesn't matter whether you're talking about medical, commercial nuclear, or military uses: If you say low level radiation is hazardous, the whole house of cards falls. So one of the things I've been trying to do is to document what I've been saying so there is no more dispute.
CANDIS: Have you succeeded? Are they beginning to listen to you?
Bertell: I think they're probably being forced to, but still not in the regulatory agencies. I would say that the real scientists are beginning to realize that the problem has not been faced. We're publishing a research journal now and getting out some of the papers that have been sup pressed. It's not easy. None of the government funding agencies will fund the type of research that needs to be done.
CANDIS: What can people do about that?
Bertell: I think we should demand that more of the health care budget, for example, go into cancer prevention instead of cure. Also, birth defects are not properly monitored in Ontario. Poor records are sent in by physicians and are poorly tabulated. We're not keeping records of how many children born in Ontario have mild mutations." Records couldn't tell me the number of children with asthma, for example, or severe allergies. We don't have a record of the number of juvenile diabetics, the average age at which heart disease is diagnosed.
CANDIS: A lot of those are caused by radiation?
Bertell: That's right. And the person who is already damaged is some twelve times more susceptible to radiation dam age. So if you increase the proportion of susceptibles in your population, you're in bad trouble. And we don't even keep track of it. We look at first cause of death, which might be an automobile accident or pneumonia. The person might have lived for 40 years with diabetes and that might not get listed as an underlying cause of death and would never get into a book of health statistics. Our whole life history is telescoped into "What did you die of?" That's a very inadequate way of dealing with the environmental health problems.
CANDIS: You're doing work with birth defects among the Navajo?
Bertell: Yes. These are in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah -- the uranium mining area and they have about 4 to 5 times the number of birth defects expected among even native people, which is higher that the general public. We're looking at birth defects in children and grandchildren of the miners. Also, some of Navajo reserves were exposed to 16 to 18 of the dirtiest above ground nuclear tests from Nevada. They were never told. There were some devastating health effects there, but people never understood what was happening to them.
CANDIS: Can they sue the government for damages?
Bertell: Many suits are in the courts now. That approach has not been terribly successful. There are 1000 claims for damage by veterans who were marched into nuclear blasts. The last I heard, about 10 or 11 or them had been given veterans pensions or aid for their medical bills. Only one of them was admitted to be radiation related, and that was Orville Kelly, who had gone to the press. He got financial assistance for the last months of his life.
There are more than a thousand cases in the courts for people who were living downwind of the test sites. I think the first 25 of them have been tried and 10 were granted money relief. Something like $3 to $5 million dollars total was granted to the 10 people. The judge in Salt Lake City was careful enough to write a 480 page report, to set out the criterion for getting such a case into court, because it's very difficult to prove that your cancer or your birth defect came from an atomic blast. As I said, it mimics natural radiation, so what you're doing is increasing the natural pollutants. You're not going to get new and different diseases, but more of what you already had. So I'm sure the case will go to the Supreme Court.
After they lost on the Utah case, the US government took their own federal expert witnesses back to Washington and set up a "Dose Assessment Committee" to determine a radiation exposure level below which there would be no compensation either for workers or for down wind residents. They want to get this into legislation so it doesn't become something that can be solved by the courts. It's an outrageous thing to do.
CANDIS: You've testified quite a bit in court about the effects of radiation -- is that right?
Bertell: I've tried to help in licensing procedures for power plants, nuclear waste dump problems, and some worker compensation suits, such as lawsuits at the Nevada test sites for workers who have been exposed.
CANDIS: And I understand you go to the Pacific quite a bit.
Bertell: I've visited both French Polynesia, where the French are actively testing, and Micronesia, where the US weapon testing was done. I've also visited Johnston Island, the site of several above-ground tests. The US spends mil lions of dollars every year to keep it ready for more tests in case they ever want to break the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. They could begin testing immediately. It's also the location of all the biological and chemical warfare agents for the Pacific. It's about half way between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands.
CANDIS: The Marshall Island people have suffered a great deal from radiation, I understand.
Bertell: That's right. They've had more radiation exposure than the people at Hiroshima-Nagasaki. The US tested weapons in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 at both Bikini and Eniwetok. They set off 66 nuclear bombs, one of which -- the Bravo event, March 1, 1954 was 1000 times larger than the explosion of the Hiroshima bomb. The people of the Marshall Islands have suffered from beta burns. They have keloid scars ...
CANDIS: What are "beta burns"?"
Bertell: Deep, ugly burns on the skin from the fallout of radioactive beta emitters. Terrible. They also have increased cancer rates. I think some 95 percent of children have had thyroid surgery. The youngest child exposed died at age 17 of myloid leukemia. The Japanese have opened their A-Bomb hospitals, both at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to victims of the Marshall Islands. But many of the Marshallese are unaware of what happened to them. They have a high rate of birth defects and Downs syndrome children. One woman who went over to begin a Headstart program told me that 80 children showed up and 8 of them were Downs syndrome. That's a terrible ratio, but there were more children at home that were so severely retarded that they hadn't even been sent to the program.
Women have hydatidiform moles the people of the Marshall Islands call them "jellyfish babies." It's like a living mass that's got some hair and some bones but no face and no limbs. It only lives as long as it's connected to the umbilical cord. So the woman would carry it 7 or 8 months . . .
CANDIS: And she'd think she had a baby. God!
Bertell: Yes. She'd have this mole, just a blob of living material.-One woman told me that she held her baby for 3 hours until it died and then she buried it so her husband wouldn't see it. So what you have here is women blaming themselves for having deformed babies. Several have lost their mind over it -- really gone berserk. And frequently, after a hydatidiform mole, a woman gets a very virulent form of invasive uterine cancer, so they need good medical follow-up, but given the conditions on the Marshall Islands, and with the women not telling anybody when they've had these, they've had very little follow up So I'm sure women have died of invasive uterine cancer without any medical assistance.
CANDIS: / think the most dramatic thing of yours I've ever read is a paper called "The First Victims of World War III. " I had no idea that there have been so many victims already
Bertell: Yes, the estimate in that paper was very conservative I used the United Nations statistics about how much radioactive material has been released by the weapons testing. There have been more than 1200 nuclear bombs already set off on the planet.
CANDIS: Above ground, or in all?
Bertell: Well, it's a little sticky to decide. For the United Nations estimates, that's all inclusive, but the number that the United Nations says the United States set off is only about 60 per cent as high as the United States says it set off, so ...
CANDIS: Why would the US claim to have set off more?
Bertell: U N numbers come from SIPRI in Stockholm, and are based on it. I also used their estimates of worker exposure.
The resulting conservative estimate of what I call "nuclear victims" already since 1945 is between thirteen and sixteen million. That would include cancers, genetically damaged children, congenital malformations, children who die before age one, spontaneous abortions, and miscarriages caused by radioactive material.
Many victims are voiceless: They're the indigenous people of the Pacific Islands, the people of the Soviet Union who are near Chelybinsk where they had the big accident, or who are in Siberia, where the weapons are tested. They are the Indians of North America, who do the uranium mining and have the tailings on their property, or people who live downwind of the test site
earthquake tremors. And the US gives you their announced shots but there are other shots that are not announced. So there must be a threshold below which tests cannot be picked up in Stockholm, which is distant from the Nevada test sites. I don't know how sensitive the instruments are. I also used the UN estimates of how much radioactive material had been released from nuclear facilities -- but this included only weapon facilities, not power plants So you could add to the number if you put the power plants
There are other victims who don't know they're victims They get cancer, or have a deformed child and they don't connect it with weapon testing They think it's something they did wrong, or it's in their family People aren't conscious of the larger environmental questions.
CANDIS: You think that a substantial number of the birth defects in an ordinary Canadian population might be attributable to radiation?
Bertell: Yes. The obvious are the minimal brain damage We are exposed to a lot of radioactive iodine and in the fifth month of development the thyroid is formed. Iodine tends to concentrate in the thyroid, even in the fetal thyroid So if you destroy some of that thyroid tissue, you get a lower than normal thyroid level in the child and that causes damage to the unfolding brain. It's a very well known fact They're even routinely testing newborns for hypothyroidism now because you can give a thyroid hormone and prevent some of the mental retardation. But when you have a severe effect like that, you always get lesser gradations of it too -- the minimal brain damaged child, the hyperkinetic child, and so on.
CANDIS: Do you think that hyperactivity is the result of radiation?
Bertell: Yes. Many of our learning disabilities arc connected with some damage to the unfolding brain. And of course what's pervasive are these 300 chemicals spewed out with the nuclear test blast They're in all our nutrients now. They didn't exist in our ordinary environment before 1945.
CANDIS: So, even if no additional radioactivity pollution takes place. the stuff is there and will continue to...
Bertell: We're in trouble, yes. It hasn't all impacted yet According to a UN estimate, there are some 150 megatons of fission products up in the stratosphere above the northern hemisphere, just gradually coming down all over the place
CANDIS: /t got up there from the blasts and has been there all along?
Bertell: Yes, it's just gradually coming down.
CANDIS: And how long will it be radioactive?
Bertell: Oh, some of it is plutonium which will be radioactive for thousands of years! The Carbon 14 is still working its way through the sink of the ocean. Most of the radioactive material gets washed out from lakes and rivers into the ocean. You see, our earth is designed to recycle. The upswellings will lift it up to
see = especially the brain damage. I would also say that another major effect is the overweight problem which is a thyroid function problem. Those are obvious -- a drop in infertility, increase in fertility in males and females, spontaneous abortions, increased cancer rates.
CANDIS: Those have been increasing?
Bertell: Yes. Male infertility has gone from something like 1 in 20 or 25 to some thing like 1 in 5. It's probably not all due to radioactivity because there are other military pollutants we have to deal with. The pollutants invented for the Vietnam war were the herbicides, defoliants and pesticides. Those are taking their toll on the civilian population because they're in the waste dumps. Or they're watered down a little to sell to the people as herbicides or pesticides. We're polluted with these things that were deliberately produced to kill the jungle so they could fight.
CANDIS: And it's not illegal to be using these things now?
Bertell: No. You're dealing with the passivity of a population, which I think is a response to the horror of the nuclear bomb, which was such a terrible weapon that people welcomed the secrecy after World War 11. They said, "This shouldn't get into the wrong hands." So we allowed the military to set up secret labs and classify all the information, and it's now grown into a monster. It started out as well-meaning, but now people feel that they've lost control, that they can't even understand it or know what's happening to them. All this military stuff is continuing on its own steam without democratic controls. We're killing ourselves with our strategy of survival.
I think this situation has been more been seeing children less able to cope. They've been upset with the health questions. And it's going to get worse if we continue what we're doing.
CANDIS: If eel like staggering away! ~s that the reaction most people have when they listen to this?
Bertell: I think the information is overwhelming. I say that it is a death syndrome .
CANDIS: That the species is preparing its death, whether or not there is a nuclear war?
Bertell: That's right. I believe that we're well on the road to suicide by slow poison. I think we have to realize that a society will go through the same states of dealing with death that an individual goes through. So you go through denial. There's denial all around -- you know, "leave me alone, I don't want to hear about that. I hope I die before it happens." The next stage is anger, frustration -- emotional states where you're more in touch with reality. It's more painful. Women often experience it when they look at a child and the tears come up and you don't know where they come from. The person who feels this way is in touch with something there that's being felt and not denied. If you get through that stage, you will somehow come to terms with it and usually move to a "barter" stage where you partially come to grips with it. Maybe you join a peace group.
CANDIS: What do you mean by "barter?"
Bertell: Well, you do some tradeoffs. You accept the fact that it's a problem and you do some things toward resolving it, but it isn't yet a wholehearted effort. You see this with a cancer patient who maybe takes some vitamins and doesn't quite come to grips with the fact that you have to do more than that. I remember
"I'm willing to have all the surgery, go through all this, but I'm not going to quit smoking."
I don't know what it is in human beings, but we'll do that. We'll go out and work for peace, but if our husband has a job at the local Litton plant that's making the guidance system we accept it as necessary because we have to have some money. It's a double message: "I want peace, but I also want all these other things." As long as you give a double message, it's ineffective
CANDIS: What comes after barter?
Bertell: Well, it has to be wholehearted. It has to be a holistic and a wholehearted dealing with it which is going to bring about changes in lifestyle, in attitude, rethinking the deep militarism which is in our whole culture. I think we're unaware of how even our organizations are militaristic. That's one of the beauties of the Greenham Common women -- they're not organized like an army. It's okay to not put up a common front. So you don't just vote on something like a union does, and then if you lose you still go along with the majority opinion and keep your mouth shut; that's an army. It's deep in our culture.
We need to recognize and enjoy diversity. We need decentralization. Centralization is the army again. We need to get the military toys out of our houses. We need to stop using military terminology, like "target population," "more bang for the buck." It permeates our culture. Our video games are horrible. We need to work on all those levels. And we need to devote enough money and clout to the public health sector so it can become as important as the economic sector. Other wise we'll have a lot of electricity and no people to use it.
CANDIS: You talk of the species as on its way out. How long do we have?
Bertell: Well, let me put it this way. Every individual will die and at some point in your life you come to the realization that you do not have unlimited energy or resources at your disposal and you start to live like an adult. When you're a kid it's usually all or nothing but at some point you come to terms with the fact that you want to maximize your life -- the goodness of life -- as long as you can, and you start living in a more reasonable way. I think the human race has reached that stage. The human race is going to die out, whether we do it by catastrophic war or poison or for some natural reason, but we could extend it What we need to do is not say, "Isn't it awful we're going to die?" but "Let's live. Let's maximize."
CANDIS: You think it's now irreversible?
Bertell: I don't think that we can reverse all the damage we've done to the earth, to ourselves, and to the gene pool.
CANDIS: Damage that cannot be. survived? That's fatal?
Bertell: Well, yes. But we can still maximize what we have. We can still try to protect those precious parts of the earth that aren't yet polluted most of them in the Third World. We can try to keep alive the people who could survive. We could have a beautiful era of blooming instead of constant growth, if we would mature.
CANDIS: But l understood you to be saying that the damage to the species is irreversible and that the species is going to die.
Bertell: That's right. It would have died anyway, whether or not this nuclear death had occurred. The earth doesn't last forever.
CANDIS: But I thought you meant soon.
Bertell: Well, we're hurrying it up quite a bit. There's no sense in folding up in a corner and saying, "Well, I'm going to die so there's no point in living."
Young people often say, "What's the use? Should we have children?" They're facing personal death and that's never stopped anybody from having children. People had children in Auschwitz! The starving populations of the Third World are not committing suicide. They're walking miles and miles to get medical care for their babies. So, you know, it's pretty awful when, in the comfortable kind of society that we have, people aren't even willing to struggle for life!
We're going to have to stop cooperating with death. This militarism is an addiction. It's like alcoholism or drugs. It's taking our best -- our best young brains, our money, our resources. It's taking money away from the arts, education, health care, social services. All the nice things in life are being neglected to make bigger and better bombs. And we're the passive cooperators -- like the passive wife who accepts all the abuse -- because we're afraid of what might be different. Because we're afraid of change, we accept all this insanity and bullying and death-behavior. So it's our problem too. It's not those people over there who are bad. It's our society that has produced it and is tolerating it. It's going to be noncooperation that brings about the change.
CANDIS: You're going to organize non-cooperation?
Bertell: That's right. Non-cooperation with death-behavior is waking up and saying "I'm not going to pretend anymore." I think it will have to he organized, as the Solidarity movement was organized in Poland. For example, on such and such a day, at twelve o'clock, if you don't want the cruise missile testing in Canada, then go out on the streets and don't pay any attention to what you're supposed to be doing in your office. Or if you're teaching school, don't teach calculus, teach peace. Let everybody know that you don't want this done and that you are part of a large number of people. And if that doesn't do anything, do it again for two hours. And do it again for three hours. And then do it again for four hours until somebody listens. We're not serious yet. Until we're serious, we're going to continue to be abused.
Oh, one other thing. I didn't tell you about a new organization I've been elected to. It's the International Commission for Health Professionals. We're going to put out a newsletter on the interface between the health professionals and human rights. This involves two major categories -- one is physicians who help with or design tortures, and the other is scientists who do not tell people about the health effects of the toxic materials they are working with.
Our intention is to confront them scientists confronting scientists and physicians confronting physicians. Something like Amnesty International. But Amnesty has not been able to handle this because they're told that they don't know what they're talking about. They don't have the background in medicine or science to make a credible stand. That's why this new organization has been founded. We also will support those physicians who are refusing to cooperate with torture and those scientists who are trying to speak out. That's one reason for our new journal.
The case I just sent for review was Ed Cooperman, who was killed in California last October. He was a professor at California State University at Fullerton who had been studying the aftermath of the Vietnam War. His files were on Agent Orange and the health problems that people were having. He was also investigating the anti-personnel weapons -- one out of three didn't detonate during the war but are now detonating when the farmers try to plow their fields. Cooperman had all this information and he was shot to death by a Vietnamese student in his office.
The police have confiscated all his files and they won't even release them to the United Nations.
A lawyer volunteered his services to defend the young Vietnamese. He turned out to be a former Green Beret from Vietnam, and advisor to President Reagan and former advisor to President Nixon -- a pretty high-level lawyer to volunteer his services to this young boy.
The first trial ended up with a hung jury, and they're trying to get a second trial. They'll probably get him off. They're claiming he was wrestling with Professor Cooperman and the gun went off accidentally. They've still got the files. These incidents get little or no publicity, so we're going to try to get it out into the professional networks, because it's not an isolated case.