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FEATURE ARTICLE

Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks

Exposures 50 years ago still have health implications today that will continue into the future

Steven Simon, André Bouville, Charles Land

Figure 1. Between 1945 and 1980...Click to Enlarge Image

Prior to 1950, only limited consideration was given to the health impacts of worldwide dispersion of radioactivity from nuclear testing. But in the following decade, humanity began to significantly change the global radiation environment by testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. By the early 1960s, there was no place on Earth where the signature of atmospheric nuclear testing could not be found in soil, water and even polar ice.

Cancer investigators who specialize in radiation effects have, over the intervening decades, looked for another signature of nuclear testing—an increase in cancer rates. And although it is difficult to detect such a signal amid the large number of cancers arising from "natural" or "unknown" causes, we and others have found both direct and indirect evidence that radioactive debris dispersed in the atmosphere from testing has adversely affected public health. Frequently, however, there is misunderstanding about the type and magnitude of those effects. Thus today, with heightened fears about the possibilities of nuclear terrorism, it is worthwhile to review what we know about exposure to fallout and its associated cancer risks.








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