Reports Indicate Genetic Mutations in Children Living in Areas of High Radioactive Fallout

Native American Exposure to Radiation in the Northwest May Be Higher than Estimated

* A study released last week presents new evidence that fallout from aboveground atomic bomb testing can cause genetic mutation in children born to the men and women exposed to the fallout. It is uncertain whether the mutations have any health effects.

Yuri Dubrova, of the University of Leicester, led the study, which sampled blood from 40 families in the area of Kazakstan where the former Soviet Union conducted atomic bomb tests. These families were compared to a control group of 28 individuals from a geographically similar area of Kazakstan with no exposure to fallout. The generation exposed to fallout from the tests, which were conducted between 1949 and 1956, was shown to have an 80 percent higher rate of genetic mutation than those who were not exposed. The children of the exposed were shown to have a 50 percent higher mutation rate than children of those who were not exposed.

Previously, the only information known about mutations due to exposure to radioactive fallout came from studies done on survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II. However, those studies never showed an indication of mutation because they were isolated one-time incidents, rather than prolonged low-level exposures, such as that of residents near atomic bomb testing sites.

It is unclear whether the mutations produce adverse health effects. The mutations were found in what is called "junk DNA," which are bits of DNA with no known function. Nevertheless, Dubrova said that the researchers, "are finding that if you live in an environment that is contaminated where you are continuously exposed, then you start to see these increases [in mutations]."

Native American Exposure to Radiation in the Northwest May Be Higher than Estimated

A study presented this week suggests that Native Americans may have suffered from exposure to higher levels of radiation from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation than was previously estimated. According to Bill Burke, representative of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, there has always been the fear of excess radiation exposure among the tribes in the northwest.

According to the Risk Assessment Corporation, the organization that did the study, there are many reasons that the Native American population may have been more affected than the white farmers or others living in the area. For example, Native Americans near Hanford may have eaten more fish from the Columbia River, or prepared it in such a way that potentially exposed them to more cancer-causing radiation. Historians and representatives of the tribes estimate that a member of one of the northwestern tribes might eat anywhere from 90 to approximately 550 pounds of fish per year. Due to the land-based lifestyle of the northwestern tribes, they may be more exposed to the strontium-90 that bioaccumulates in bones of the fish, and is released upon boiling.

The Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project was aimed at estimating the dose to those living downwind and downstream of the Hanford nuclear reservation, particularly during the 1960s, when many of Hanford's nine reactors were operating.

Back to News Index