September 30, 1997

U.S. Warned Film Plants, Not Public, About Nuclear Fallout

WASHINGTON -- Through most of the 1950s, while the government reassured the public that there was no health threat from atmospheric nuclear tests, the Atomic Energy Commission regularly warned Eastman Kodak Co. and other film manufacturers about fallout that could damage their products, according to a review of government literature by a private watchdog group here.

The warnings were confirmed on Monday by people in the photographic industry.

Kodak discovered in the early 1950s that some film was fogged before use, and it traced the problem to fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests, both American and Russian. The watchdog group, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, a nonprofit organization in Takoma Park, Md., that specializes in nuclear weapons issues, said Kodak had threatened to sue the Atomic Energy Commission, which had then promised to warn Kodak about future tests.

The National Cancer Institute said in August that fallout from the blasts, most of them between 1951 and 1958, had probably caused 10,000 to 75,000 extra thyroid cancers. A Senate subcommittee is planning a hearing on Wednesday to investigate when the hazard was first recognized and people were not protected.

The documents, declassified in the 1980s and made public as part of an "openness initiative" by Hazel O'Leary, the former energy secretary, include "Report by the Director of Military Application, Summary of Relationships between the A.E.C. and the Photographic Industry Regarding Radioactive Contamination from Atomic Weapons Tests,from January through December 1951."

A spokesman for Kodak, Paul Allen, gave an account similar to the institute's about how his company had discovered the fallout. Some film was fogged because it had been packed in a material made from corn husks that had been contaminated by fallout, for example. But Allen said no one still working at the company knew whether Kodak had been warned by the government.

But Thomas Dufficy, the executive vice president of the Photographic and Imaging Manufacturers Association, said the government had given regular warnings to his industry. Dufficy, who joined the group in 1967, when it was called the National Association of Photographic Manufacturers, said that government officials would call to give a warning after any radiation release, including nuclear blasts by foreign countries.

After the companies were warned, they could wait a few months before using materials that might have been contaminated with iodine-131, which is radioactive and produced in abundance by nuclear tests, to let the level of radioactivity drop.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is the ranking minority member of an Appropriations Committee subcommittee that will hold the hearing on Wednesday, said, "It really is odd that the government would warn Kodak about its film but it wouldn't warn the general public about the milk it was drinking." Iodine-131 is absorbed by cows and incorporated into milk. In humans, it concentrates in the thyroid gland, where it can cause cancer.

"The only thing I can surmise," Harkin added, "is that they just didn't want any public reaction against the atomic tests."

Harkin said that part of his thyroid had been removed 17 years ago, that his brother had died of thyroid cancer last year and that a niece had received a thyroid cancer diagnosis earlier this year. Harkin said he did not know the source of his cancer but was concerned about his family's exposure to radiation from fallout.

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