Title: Multiple Exposures: Chronicles of the Radiation Age
Author: Caufield, Catherine
Publisher: (NY: Harper & Row, 1989)
Note: Review by Peter Montague, excerpted below
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Rachel’s Environment & Health News #200 (9/26/90)
"Sacrificing Citizens" (Review by Peter Montague of "Multiple Exposures" by Catherine Caufield)
In a sense, this is the story of a long trial-and-error process that extended over a 70-year period as industrialized nations, led by the U.S., experimented with ionizing radiation and its associated machines such as X-ray devices, atomic and H-bombs, medical isotopes for diagnostic and therapeutic use, and nuclear power plants to generate electricity.
All across the U.S. in the ’20s and ’30s, entrepreneurs started installing X-ray machines and irradiating the public. Beauty shops started using Xrays to remove unwanted facial and body hair: hit with enough ionizing radiation, hair falls out. The biggest operation was the Tricho Institute, founded by Albert Geyser, a New York physician. Geyser leased X-ray machines to beauty parlors and offered two-week training courses. Two physicians gave this summary of Tricho’s results in 1947:
"As the years passed, cases of radiodermatitis [skin ailments due to radiation], horrible burns, painful ulcerations, and cancer resulting from the Tricho system of treatment were observed by dermatologists in all sections of the country… the number of cases of x-ray burns, cancer and death resulting from the treatments administered by the Tricho Institute must have run into the thousands. It is impossible to obtain or estimate the actual number because the cases were not recorded." (pg. 16)
1: The medical community has been slow to catch on to the dangers of ionizing radiation. Suggestions of danger have been met with skepticism, indifference, hostility and ridicule by medical scientists and practitioners.
2: Publicity by newspapers, not action by government officials, has been the usual means for curbing excessive and dangerous exposures to radiation. For example, the Tricho Institute’s operation was shut down by adverse publicity, not by government action.
3: The regulatory system has lagged behind the problems by years, and there is substantial evidence that the system is lagging behind the available evidence today. People who want to protect themselves and their children cannot rely solely on regulatory officials to do their thinking for them.
4: A lot of people have to be hurt before regulators begin to regulate. The rule has been consistent: Until there are a large number of victims, every new technology is assumed safe. In fact, Lauriston Taylor, the head of the National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP) [the agency then responsible for setting radiation standards within the U.S.] in 1948 said it explicitly: "I see no alternative but to assume that the operation is safe until it is proven to be unsafe. It is recognized that in order to demonstrate an unsafe condition you may have to sacrifice someone. This does not seem fair on the one hand, yet I see no alternative. You certainly cannot penalize research and industry merely on the suspicion of someone who doesn’t know, by assuming that all installations are unsafe until proven safe." (pg. 67)