Ionizing Radiation: A Legacy of the Cold War
Alpha, beta, and gamma radiation are called ionizing radiation because their energy adds or removes electrons from atoms (fig. 2C). Electrons dislodged by ionizing radiation can affect nearby atoms, disrupting physiology at the chemical level in a variety of ways — causing cancer, clouding the lens of the eye, and interfering with normal growth and development.
In the United States, most people are exposed to very low levels of ionizing radiation, mostly from background radiation, which originates from natural environmental sources (table 2A). This is not true however, for people who live near sites of atomic weapons manufacture. Epidemiologists are now studying recently uncovered medical records that document illnesses linked to long-term exposure to ionizing radiation in a 1,200-square kilometer area in former East Germany. It is a frightening tale.
Today, the lake near Oberrothenback, Germany, appears inviting, but looks are deceiving. The lake contains enough toxins to kill thou sands of people, its water polluted with heavy metals, low-level radioactive chemical waste, and 22,500 tons of arsenic. Radon, a radioactive byproduct of uranium, permeates the soil. High death rates among farm animals and pets have been traced to their drinking from the polluted lake. Cancer rates and respiratory disorders among the human residents nearby are far above normal. This isn't surprising, given the region's toxic history.
The lake in Oberrothenback once served as a dump for a factory that produced "yellow cake," a term for processed uranium ore, which was used to build atomic bombs for the former Soviet Union. In the early
1950s, nearly half a million workers labored here and in surrounding areas in factories and mines. Records released in 1989, after the reunification of Germany, reveal that workers were given perks, such as alcoholic beverages and better wages, to work in the more dangerous areas. The workers paid a heavy price: tens of thousands died of lung ailments.
Today, these health records may answer a long-standing question: What are the effects of exposure to long-term, low-level ionizing radiation? Until now, the risks of such exposure have been extrapolated from health statistics amassed for the victims, survivors, and descendants of the atomic blasts in Japan in the Second World War. But a single exposure, such as a bomb blast, may not have the same effect on the human body as extended exposure, such as the uranium workers experienced. The cold war may be over, but a lethal legacy of its weapons remains. ■
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