The Nuclear Industry, X Rays and Breast Cancer

The following excerpts are from the book from Killing our Own:
Chronicling the Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation, 1945-1982
by Harvey Wasserman and Norman Solomon about the Three Mile Island incident in particular and the cover ups by the nuclear industry. The book was published in 1982 so there is a lot of information not included but it is interesting to learn just how much was known at the time, as well as detailed accounts of the history involved. The whole book is online and I recommend reading it. The following is pulled from the chapter The Use and Misuse of Medical X Rays, I have just pulled out the parts that particularly struck me, in particular in relation to breast cancer and female health. Females are more sensitive to low frequency EMFs in general and our breast tissue is particularly vulnerable. I have left in the reference numbers but you will have to refer to the online book to find the source.

The Use and Misuse of Medical X Rays

During 1979 congressional hearings on medical and dental X rays, Congressman Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) recalled taking his young daughter to a hospital emergency room after she had inhaled some pillow stuffing. She was having trouble breathing. Recalled Gore: “The first thing the doctor said is, `Let’s have an X ray.'” Gore asked the doctor if the pillow stuffing would show up on the X ray. The doctor said it would not. Gore then asked why an X ray was necessary. The doctor said it would be good to have as a base against which to compare future X rays in case some pneumonia developed. Gore decided not to allow the X ray to be taken.[1]

Gore’s action was a rare one. In 1979–the year of the accident at Three Mile Island–the American population received over 270 million individual X rays.[2] They constituted the largest single source of human-made external radiation doses to the American public. In 1980 some $6.7 billion was spent on radiology equipment, insurance, and personnel;[3] approximately 300,000 people are currently employed operating medical and dental X-ray equipment.[4] Yet the doses administered by this industry were hardly insignificant. In some cases they may have harmed rather than helped their patients.

There is no question that X rays can perform enormously important medical services, and that their use has made an inestimable contribution to human health. Surgical therapy; treatment of bone fractures; location of various cancers, internal diseases, and malformations–all have become possible with the use of X rays, and all have resulted in the alleviation of pain and the saving of lives on a mass scale. As a result, X-ray diagnosis has rightfully taken its place as a vital and necessary part of medical therapy throughout the world.

The problems arise when the technology is overused and its dangers are not fully appreciated by the medical profession or the public. Every indicator now points to new warnings that caution is advised, and that there are those–particularly pregnant women and their unborn children–who have already suffered from the misuse of this medical miracle.

Roentgen soon found the fluorescence was caused by the rays striking a chemically treated screen. After extensive experiments he determined that the rays had a very short wavelength that gave them special penetrating power, enabling them to pass through various substances–including human flesh. Human bones, he found, cast a denser shadow than surrounding soft tissues–a property that would form the basis for the global medical X-ray industry.[5]

Roentgen published his first article on the phenomenon in late December 1895. By February of 1896 American physicists were using X rays in clinical medicine. One patient–a young boy named Eddie McCarthy–had a broken forearm X-rayed. A young New Yorker named Tolson Cunningham had a bullet removed from his leg after it was located with a forty-five-minute X-ray exposure.

Not surprisingly the early X-ray pioneers had little understanding of the potential dangers of radiation. They rarely bothered to protect their patients or themselves from overexposure. Machine operators often tested their equipment by placing their hands–time and again–in the beam. With fluctuating power ratios and errant beams, doctors, patients, machine operators, and bystanders alike were exposed. The X rays could even penetrate walls and irradiate people in other rooms.[7]

And the side effects were not long in surfacing. In 1896 Dr. D. W. Gage of McCook, Nebraska, writing in New York’s Medical Record, noted cases of hair loss, reddened skin, skin sloughing off, and lesions. “I wish to suggest that more be understood regarding the action of the x rays before the general practitioner adopts them in his daily work,” Gage warned.[8]

In 1963 a study by Dr. E. B. Lewis found a significant excess of deaths from leukemia, multiple myeloma, and aplastic anemia among radiologists, and two years later two Johns Hopkins researchers discovered a 70 percent excess of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers among radiologists as opposed to the general population, and a 730 percent rise in leukemia deaths.[14]

X Rays in Utero

Though the X-ray industry and its medical proponents emphasize that the doses from diagnostic radiation are small, considerable evidence has surfaced indicating that the health effects can be devastating, particularly to the unborn fetus.[24]

In fact, one of the world’s first and biggest radiation surveys was conducted in the mid-1950s on the effects of X rays on unborn children, and it has had an important effect on all debate over safe radiation exposures since.

The study began in 1955, when David Hewitt, a statistician at England’s Oxford University, noticed that in the preceding few years there had been more than a 50 percent increase in the number of British children dying of leukemia. His preliminary statistics convinced Dr. Alice Stewart of Oxford’s Department of Preventative Medicine to search for a reason. Trained as a pediatrician and epidemiologist, Stewart began crisscrossing Britain, persuading local health officials to interview the mothers of each of the 1,694 children who died of cancer the previous two years. An equal number of healthy mothers and children were used as controls.

Stewart and Hewitt sifted through the data and found that twice as many cancer deaths occurred before the age of ten among children whose mothers had received a series of pelvic X rays while pregnant.[25] “It was quite by accident that we bumped into the radiation story,” Stewart told us.[26]

The “accident” was not well received by either the medical community or the nuclear industry. An X-ray picture of a fetus in utero had been secured as early as February of 1896–two months after Roentgen’s discovery–and it had become common practice to use X rays to detect multiple births or abnormal conditions in the uterus, and to clarify the outlines of the mother’s pelvis to aid in delivery.[27] Hewitt’s and Stewart’s findings jeopardized those practices and threw into doubt the entire foundation of the safety standards for radiation. Such doses from X rays were believed to be safe.

In 1958, with an expanded data base, she concluded that a fetus exposed in the first three months of development was ten times more likely to develop cancer than an unexposed fetus. The risk increased with the number of exposures, even a single X ray was found to contribute. Stewart also found that X rays to a woman who was not pregnant could also lead to damage in future offspring. Women carry their eggs from birth, and Stewart found the X rays would be particularly harmful if they affected the mothers’ ovaries.[29]

A study of 700,000 children born between 1947 and 1964 was conducted in thirty-seven major maternity hospitals in the Northeast. MacMahon compared the children of seventy thousand mothers who had received pelvic X rays during pregnancy with the children of mothers who had not been X-rayed. He found that cancer mortality was 40 percent higher among the children with X-rayed mothers.[30]

Mammography and Other Problems

Unfortunately, children in utero have not been the only ones to suffer from the misuse of X-ray technology. One major program of X-ray diagnosis–mammography, aimed at tracking down breast cancer in women–has also resulted in disaster. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among American women between the ages of forty-four and fifty-five. Apparently X rays have contributed to the problem rather than helping to solve it.[39]

Because the breast is highly radiation-sensitive, the mammogram itself can cause cancer. The danger can be heightened by the subject’s genetic makeup, preexisting benign breast disease, artificial menopause, obesity, and hormonal imbalances. Ironically, because the breast tissue of younger women is denser than that of older women, detection of their cancer through mammography is more difficult, if not impossible, in many cases.

The idea of using X rays to detect breast cancer gained credence in the 1930s. By the 1960s mammography was in common use, and a study begun in 1963 by the Health Insurance Plan of New York (HIP) concluded that mammography could reduce mortality rates among women.[40]

By 1976 about eighteen hundred cases of breast cancer had been detected.[41]

In January of 1975 Dr. John C. Bailar III published an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine warning that the Health Insurance Plan study, which had prompted so much faith in mammography, had not in fact demonstrated any increase in survival rates among the women under fifty who had been given the X rays.[43] Drs. Irwin Bross and Leslie Blumenson of Buffalo’s Roswell Park Memorial Laboratory soon estimated that based on dosage levels, twice as many deaths as cures could result from mammographic screenings.[44] By early 1977 Bross had become an outspoken critic of the program, calling it a “disastrous mistake” that would “produce the worst . . . epidemic of cancer in medical history.”

At a meeting sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, Bross accused the American Cancer Society and the American College of Radiology of subjecting a quarter million American women to X-ray dosages equivalent “to death warrants with a 15-year delay in the execution.”[45] Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a mathematician and an expert in radiation and the causes of cancer, later explained that a basic arithmetical error had been made in the design of the mammography program, which may well have resulted in serious health effects to early participants in the program. Some changes were made after the error was pointed out, she said, but had the program continued as originally planned, it might have caused up to twelve breast cancers for every one it picked up.

“A lot of this I blame on the nuclear establishment which has gone out of its way to convince everybody that low level radiation is no hazard. The nuclear physicist gives cancer risk per year, whereas health professionals give reproductive lifetime (30 year) or lifetime (70 year) risk. A physician using a physicist’s estimates and not noting the timeframe difference will underestimate the risk.” -Dr. Rosalie Bertell

The medical profession, she said, was also accepting the word of the weapons industry about the magnitude of the risk per year, even if corrected for longer time spans, letting nuclear physicists determine what doses of radiation were safe, and what were not. Thus, she charged, “the doctors have abdicated responsibility in this area.”[46]

“If one million women each receive 1,000 millirem of x rays, between 50 and 200 can be expected to develop breast cancer as a result,” he said. “The risk for radiation-induced breast cancer is higher than for all other radiation-induced cancers, including thyroid, lung, leukemia, and bone tumors.”[51] Leonard Solon, director of New York City’s Bureau of Radiation Control, worried in 1976

In May 1977 the outspoken Bross coauthored an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, blaming doctors for excess cancers and increased risks of genetic damage because of misuse of X rays. Within weeks he was notified that federal funding for his work on the Tri-State Survey was being terminated. The National Cancer Institute, which supported the survey for a decade, put two of Bross’s best-known opponents on its review committee. Said Bross: “We became the most recent victims of a pattern of censorship and repression that has been going on in the United States ever since the furor over fallout from weapons.”[54]

Why So Many X Rays?

Proponents of atomic power and weaponry have long been concerned that indications that small doses of X rays may be harmful would reflect badly on the viability of atomic reactors and the safety of bomb testing. Dr. Stewart’s initial study, for example, was the first major epidemiological indication that low-level fallout could be far more dangerous than the currently accepted limits. In fact, even as late as 1979, during the accident at Three Mile Island, nuclear proponents were arguing that exposure levels from the plant were comparable to a single X ray, and thus safe. Dr. Stewart’s study, and a host of others, had indicated that even a single X ray could have disastrous effects on an infant in utero and other susceptible members of the community.

Another reason for an excess of X rays may be that they add to the income of doctors and medical institutions. X-ray equipment is costly and as the state of the art quickly changes, older but still usable models become obsolete. Doctors who invest thousands of dollars in X-ray machines may well be inclined to use them more than absolutely necessary in an attempt to recoup their investment.

Perhaps the technology most vulnerable to this kind of financial consideration is the new “computerized axial tomography scanning” machine–the CT scanner. The CT scanner can be enormously useful–and also enormously expensive, costing up to $1 million to buy and $500,000 per year to maintain. A body scan can cost $250 (CT radiation therapy can run as high as $36,000 per patient) and by the early 1980s more than two million Americans were undergoing CT examinations each year.[57] Unfortunately the radiation doses are not inconsiderable, ranging as high as forty-five hundred millirems for some scans.[58]

The question must inevitably arise as to whether the machines once bought might be overused for financial reasons. That question has also arisen in the field of dental X rays. The average skin dose per dental X-ray film is about 910 millirems, nearly triple the whole body dose from background radiation. Though the dose to the bone is much lower–four millirems–a full mouth series can involve sixteen or more individual X-ray films and can deliver a substantial dose of radiation to the mouth.[59]

Ironically, one of the chief contributors to this ongoing exposure is the American insurance program. Medical malpractice liability varies from state to state. Numerous insurance companies require an X ray before they will reimburse a patient for treatment. The Social Security Act requires an X ray to be submitted as proof of need for chiropractic treatment.[69]

Perhaps the worst problem resides in the medical malpractice laws. These vary from state to state, but in general they are a strong incentive to doctors to give numerous X rays far in excess of real medical need, in the hopes of establishing a record with which to defend themselves in case of a lawsuit. This “defensive medicine” can be carried to extremes.

Read the whole book Killing Our Own here.

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