Saturday, August 8, 2020

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki: When We All Became Human Subjects for Radiological Experimentation


Atomic scientists’ success during World War II in harnessing the power released by nuclear disintegration was heralded as a major scientific advancement. Indeed, the December 22, 1945 issue of Science News Letters proudly declared “Atomic Power Leads” as the year’s most significant scientific advancement given its “world shaking consequences.”[i]

The Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced those world shaking consequences first hand with the deployments of the “Little Boy” uranium weapon on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and the “Fat Man” plutonium-based bomb over Nagasaki on August 9. 

However, the article in Science News Letters emphasized the medical benefits of newly discovered radiological isotopes over the destructive power of radiological fallout. This tendency to emphasize purported benefits of all things nuclear by scientific and government authorities was a strategy to sell the world on the benefits of nuclear power.

The Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima was established in 1950 to study the effects of exposure on atomic bomb survivors. Fourteen studies have been published from the data collected from a cohort of approximately 120,000 subjects, including residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were in the cities during the bombing and residents who were outside of their home cities at the time of the bombing.[ii] 

In the foundation’s report published in 2012, the data support the linear, no-threshold model of the effects of ionizing radiation. The report finds no threshold below which radiation doses are harmless.

Moreover, their research has linked diseases beyond cancer – including circulatory, respiratory, and digestive disease – to fallout exposure. Health effects are documented at exposure levels of 20 millisieverts and a “statistically significant upward curvature” of effects for low doses in the 0-2 Gray range is documented.[iii] 

This upward curvature raises questions about the effects of low doses. Could there be an adverse dose-response at the low end?[iv] This question permeates the scientific literature on the biological effects of radiation.

Research on the atomic bomb survivors has been the foundation of post-World War II government understandings of dose-effects, excess relative risk from radiation exposure (ERR) and radiation protection regulations. However, although the atomic bomb survivors represent the largest available cohort on excessive radiation exposure, there have been three main criticisms of using research on atomic bomb victims to extrapolate to the health effects of lower-dose exposure to radiation.

First, the research findings on atomic bomb survivors who were exposed to high doses have been used to extrapolate the effects of low doses. This strategy essentially homogenizes the effects of dose, irrespective of the intensity of that dose. Criticisms of this practice of extrapolation have been launched by those who argue that the effects of low level radiation are not the same as the effects of acute exposure to higher-level radiation.

Second, some critics have noted that the population of survivors from the blast may not be representative of the larger population impacted by the disaster and therefore survivors may have biological predispositions that enabled them greater survivorship capacities.

Third, some critics claim the study of survivors was severely biased because many people in Japan hid symptoms of fallout exposure for fear of social exclusion and economic marginalization.[v] Finally, critics argue that fallout effect from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot be extrapolated to encompass all forms of radiological contamination because they were detonated at relatively high altitudes and produced minimal fallout.[vi]

Research on the effects of ionizing radiation was not limited to atomic bomb survivors in the immediate poste WW period. For example, in 1946 and between 1950 and 1953, the AEC working, with the National Institutes of Health and the Quaker Oats Company, funded research carried out by MIT scientists that entailed feeding radioactive iron or calcium to children deemed “mentally retarded” who were institutionalized at the at the Walter E. Fernald School. 

Although the researchers anticipated no health benefits for the children, parents were led to believe the children might benefit from the experiment.[vii] Cancer patients also served as human subjects for research on radiation, particularly at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston Texas.[viii] Although these secret studies remained classified, public concern was growing about the atmospheric fallout of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the entirety of atmospheric testing ranging from Trinity in New Mexico in 1945 through the 1980s constituted an unprecedented medical experiment upon entire populations by governments. The U.S., the Soviet Union, and the U.K., conducted atmospheric testing until 1963 when the limited test ban treaty was signed. France and China persisted in atmospheric tests through the 1980s. In sum, 504 nuclear devices are known to have been detonated above ground.[ix] The U.S. conducted 1,030 tests total, atmospheric and below ground. The human and biosphere costs are incalculable and few governments in the world have incentives for attempting to calculate them.

[i]           Atomic Power Leads. The Science News-Letter, Vol. 48, No. 25 (Dec. 22, 1945), pp. 389-396 Published by: Society for Science & the Public Stable URL: .Accessed: 11/06/2012 15:07Your use, 389.

[ii]             Kotaro Ozasa, Yukiko Shimizu, Akihiko Suyama, Fumiyoshi Kasagi, Midori Soda, Eric J. Grant, Ritsu Sakata, Hiromi Sugiyama and Kazunori Kodama. Studies of the Mortality of Atomic Bomb Survivors, Report 14, 1950–2003: An Overview of Cancer and Noncancer Diseases. Radiation Research 177, 229–243 (2012),  p. 229

[iii]          Ozasa, p. 234.

[iv]          Goddard’s Journal has produced a review of the data published by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. Available 

[v]           Shuntaro Hida, a Japanese doctor who survived the atomic bomb, has advocated on behalf of atomic bomb victims who hid their symptoms. In a lecture given in Japan on December 12, 2012 Hida describes uncounted deaths and inexplicable symptoms: "The term 'internal radiation exposure' didn't exist at the time. . . .  Because these people entered the city and were exposed to radiation, we called it ' city-entering radiation exposure.' We had no theory on why they were dying, though." Hida states that some victims died while others lived with various ailments. In 1950 he opened a clinic to treat many of these victims. He explains that they came at night to avoid stigmatization: "Atom bomb survivors were at one time unable to take out life insurance policies. Countless survivors have been discriminated against in marriage, studies, employment, and other important life events," Hida writes in his book, "Naibu hibaku no kyoi" (The Threat of Internal Radiation Exposure). "This is inherited by the second (children's) generation, and the third generation . . . ."  From 1979 to 2009 he served as the chair of the Japan Confederation of A- and H-Bomb Sufferers Organizations' central consultation center. Bomb survivor doctor continues to speak up about significance of internal exposure. Mainichi. 2012, January 23:

[vi]          Steven L. Simon, André Bouville, and Charles Land Fallout From Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks. American Scientist, 94, 48-57. 2006, p. 50.

[vii]            Walker p. 17.

 [viii]           Goliszek p. 127.

 [ix]            Steven L. Simon, André Bouville and Charles Land. Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risk. American Scientist 94, p. 48.



  1. wildfires across the usa and more hurricanes on the way

  2. I dont know how the person, who write's this blog, wear's so many hats, and works so hard and helps so many people as well. A truly gracious, good person

  3. Truth is beauty . . . Plato and Keats
    But this sinks the post-modernists. No, there are absolute truths. There are absolute values. Just as there are stars in Orion's belt. And the sun rises each day in a slightly different place. It is what we don't know that guides life. All sorts of ills befall us humans and yet we go on and on.

    Which is not to say that our science and technology have not become a problem. I for one do not have an I-phone and prefer privacy. It would be a blessing to step back from technology for a season. We used to have so much sweet freedom in our nation which we have lost along the way. I would suggest 1965 we as the axial year.

    Systematic racism is a fiction designed to distract the gullible mass man. Meanwhile the evil ones make off with the store. Time to wake up to the truth. Ding dong. Listen to the alarm clock. Take a cold shower . . . Go in search of the silver lining.

  4. Risk of cardiac events. Not what we need, with cesium137 present in so many places. It can cause cardiac damage
    in trace amounts.


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