Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Systematic Bias in the First BEAR Study on the Effects of Ionizing Radiation

What I learned today in my research from an excellent historical analysis by Jacob Darwin Hamblin titled "'A Dispassionate and Objective Effort': Negotiating the First Study on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation, Journal of the History of Biology, 40(1), 147-177, 2007:

1. The first BEAR (Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation) study on the effects of radiation published in 1956 was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation

2. Although the study was published under the auspices of the National Academy of Science, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) controlled access to classified information on atomic effects, controlled access to the media, and indirectly controlled the final version of the report that was published in Scientific America, aimed at public consumption. There were key AEC members in the study.

3. There was a strong conflict in the genetics sub-committee for the report because two prominent scientific members - Hermann J. Muller and A. H. Stuttevant -- felt that there is no safe threshold for exposure and therefore the idea of a permissible dose, as set by the government, was unconscionable. These scientists' concerns were greatly tempered and censored in the derived versions of the report that showed up in Scientific American and The New York Times (and in the final version of the report, as well).

4. A trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation owned The New York Times when the report was completed. The trustee could thus dictate what information from the report showed up in the paper. The New York Times' version of the report only featured 6 of the scientists and the two strongly dissenting geneticists were not included, nor were their concerns. It was titled "Text of Genetics Committee Report Concerning Effects of Radioactivity on Heredity" July 13, 1956 and stated that all fallout that had occurred from atmospheric nuclear testing was safe, despite considerable discussion of the damaging effects of ionizing radiation on DNA and the dangers of inherited mutations. see

5.  Despite the report's acknowledging the role of DNA in producing mutations that can be transmitted across generations, the Secretary of the Atomic Energy Commission went on to deny harmful effects from "low levels" of exposure to radiation (since in the AEC's view, radiation was essentially just sunshine--beta and gamma didn't calculate in their universe).

 6. One of the dissenting scientists, A. H. Stuttevant, was so irate about the idea of a permissible dose that he wrote an essay published in Science titled, "Social Implications of the Genetics of Man" (Sep. 1954 vol 120), in which Stuttevant demonstrated the fallacy of permissible dose (p. 406). The final sentence of Stuttevant's essay is a direct challenge to Chairman Strauss of the Atomic Energy Commission and reads as follows: 
 "I regret that an official of such responsibility should have stated that there is no biological hazard from low doses of high-energy irradiation" (407)

Narrative Version (based on my reading of Hamblin's essay)

The history of research on radiation exposure may be among the most politicized body of public health research because both the nuclear industry and governments with nuclear weapons’ programs have a shared vested interest in trivializing the effects of ionizing radiation. Indeed, Jacob Hamblin describes how the first major study on the biological effects of radiation conducted by the National Academy of Science (NAS) in 1956, the BEAR study, was fraught with disputes between (1) geneticists who saw all levels of ionizing radiation as increasing harmful mutations and (2) other atomic scientists, especially those connected to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), who found no conclusive evidence of long term damage from atmospheric fallout (147-148) and persisted in equating nuclear fallout with natural background radiation (152). The Rockefeller Foundation that funded the study also helped control media dissemination of its major findings, shaping public opinion about atmospheric testing specifically, and radiation safety, more generally.
Hamblin explains in his essay the conflicts within the committee between those who promoted the idea that fallout was safe and those who saw it as posing long term health risks to human populations. The NAS group was more concerned about effects, but had less access to classified AEC data on fallout and secret studies and had less access to the media. The study’s geneticists were particularly divided on whether they accepted a threshold of safety for radiation exposure, with several rejecting as safe any level of exposure (156), in direct contradiction to the AEC appointees and to Shields Warren, the Chairman of the Committee on the Pathological Effects of Atomic Radiation.
The presence and privileged status of AEC personnel shaped the final report in significant ways because of their insistence on a threshold for “safe exposure,” their institutional privileges, and their  access to, and visibility within,  in the public spotlight ,as contrasted with NAS members, particularly the NAS geneticists who did not participate in publicizing the report’s findings. The summary report published in Scientific American was written by the committee chairman with no other members having a role in its production (165). Thus, the thesis “no harm done” prevailed.
The Rockefeller Foundation, which financed the BEAR study, controlled news media accounts of findings. A Rockefeller Foundation trustee owned the New York Times and thus influenced reporting in that news outlet.  None of the geneticists who supported the no threshold position, especially Alfred H. Sturtevant and Hermann J. Muller, contributed to The New York Times story, which will be discussed in the following section. The “no effects” message from nuclear fallout thus dominates the final report and in its dissemination, although threaded with concerns about genetic mutations.
The conflict persists today between geneticists (and epidemiologists) who see no threshold for the damaging effects of ionizing radiation and those scientists, often funded by Department of Energy grants, who see no effects below particular thresholds. Today the idea that there is no safe threshold for exposure to ionizing radiation is referred to as the linear, no threshold model. Although it has come to be widely accepted, Department of Defense funded research persists in arguing that thresholds exist for gamma exposure.  
Part of the ambiguity in the issue of threshold stems from the type of radiation at issue. Although the AEC scientists argued that all ionizing radiation is equivalent to “background” radiation, or sunshine units, other scientists strongly disagree, arguing that the high speed electrons and atomic beta particles emitted by elements such as cesium, uranium, and plutonium  have specific dose effects that are not equivalent to gamma (electro-magnetic radiation), especially when the emitters (e.g., plutonium) are ingested or inhaled....


Paul Langley on his website has described as the “two hidden debates” in US radiological research (June 7, 2012)
a. The Linear No Threshold model (risk proportional to dose) vs hormesis and its “good” and “bad” thresholds.
b. Internal emitters and hot particle impact vs external dose as the only predictor of harm.
The politicization of these debates can be demonstrated by contextualizing  historical understandings of ionizing radiation and by looking at dose-effect findings across a variety of research contexts.

Nuclear Controversies by Vladimir Tchertkoff; Released in 2003, 51 minutes
30:20 – According to Professor Yury Bandazhevsky (former director of the Medical Institute in Gomel), "Over 50 Bq/kg of body weight lead to irreversible lesions in vital organs" 


  1. Thanks majia, for working to expose the truth. I knew something about the lies of the AEC re bomb-testing, but you have found more details about the coverup.

  2. Some time ago I visited the radioactive beaches of Guarapari Brazil. The levels there are very similar to those in the forbidden zone of Chernobyl (that I visited as well) and very similar to those of Misasa Japan, Kerala India and several other locations. The health research in these areas has never shown any problem resulting from the radiation. In Ramsar some people live happily under a 'load'of 250 milliSievert, that is huge. How should I then interpret a report from 1956 which is mainly based on fruit fly research with radiation levels that are way above what people experience in real life. You apparently favor the LNT-hypothesis, but if you simply ignore the arguments from the other side ( Google Çalabrese Hormesis) than you reduce the whole thing to one of political choice. I want proof that radiation is harnful at low doses, and you do not give it.

    1. I do give it in other locations. I have written about it in my published work on Fukushima. I have also discussed radiation health effects in research presentations, many of which are online.

      I've discussed radiation health effects extensively on my blog as well

    2. Some discussion here