Cancer and Radiation: A Malevolent History



Judy Brady is a long-time activist whose political birth came with the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s. Since then her primary political activity has centered on the connection between environmental contamination and human health with an emphasis on the epidemic of cancer.  She has written and spoken about this connection for many years  She has edited and contributed to a book about women and cancer (1 in 3: Women With Cancer Confront an Epidemic) which questions the common view that cancer is caused by lifestyle factors through critical examination of individual experiences with the disease.  In the San Francisco Bay Area she works with Greenaction, an environmental justice organization since she considers such groups as the real battle against cancer in contrast to the "disease groups" which seldom raise serious questions.  

Excerpted from, A Long View of a Social Disease

by Judy Brady

c.July, 2010

For more than a decade I participated in the training of volunteers for the Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic, a small organization which provides free complementary treatments and other forms of support for low-income women with cancer in the San Francisco Bay Area. Five or six times a year they train groups of volunteers to provide those treatments and the services which make them possible. In keeping with the clinic’s perspective, my contribution was to explain to those volunteers why it made no sense to accept the still prevalent notion that anyone could cause her own cancer, no matter what her “lifestyle.”


Over the more than ten years I made these presentations on the politics of cancer to the usually twenty or so volunteers at a time, I saw a change in the attitudes of those who came to learn how to help poor women struggling with the disease. Years ago I would inevitably cause some of these would-be volunteers to cry because the picture I gave them seemed so overwhelming and so bleak, so I began starting out by offering an apology and a warning because I knew for some it was going to be hard to hear what I was going to say. I also truly shocked people ten years ago by what I told them. But by the time I made my last presentation (in 2010), people were more interested than upset, and I no longer had to apologize for no one shed a tear. As the disease has become ever more common year after year so that advertisements for mastectomy bras and cancer treatment centers are as common as ads for cars and fast food, a diagnosis of cancer is no longer out of the ordinary. It is still dreaded, but it's not the shock that it used to be. 

The rate of breast cancers in women is one of the most rapidly growing statistics. When Rachel Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, the lifetime rate for breast cancer in American women was one in 20. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980; at that time the lifetime risk for breast cancer had risen to one in 11. Today (2010) it is one in 7, and I have even seen the statistic of one in 6. There are some areas where the breast cancer rate must be at least that high; those are nearly always communities of poor people or people of color because that's where polluting facilities are placed. I haven't yet seen an incinerator in an affluent neighborhood.

It is no accident that the rise in cancer rates follows World War II. During the 1940s, those countries involved in the war, certainly including the United States, threw all their resources into the war effort. Two industries in particular became powerful and prosperous. Those were the chemical and the nuclear industries. When the war was over, those now powerful industries scrambled to find peace-time uses for their war-time technologies. Today plastic has become ubiquitous and nuclear power is hailed as clean energy. Both of these industries are the producers of substances that cause cancer: in other words, they either manufacture carcinogens or use carcinogens in their production process. That's the simple answer to the question of cause. Cancer is caused by carcinogens. The complicated one is that we have no idea about how to really investigate just what the enormously complex environment we have created actually does to our bodies, nor do we think about how to change the social/economic institutions which promote and protect the producers of carcinogens. We don't even understand that we need to change those institutions. It puzzles me. Maybe it's because we don't collect the various sorts of evidence in one place and then look at it. Then again, maybe it's because reality is shielded from our gaze.

The evidence of chemical pollution is often obvious. You can see the filthy rivers and lifeless lakes, the oil on the beaches, the fallow fields, the belching chimneys, the toxic waste dumps, smell the foul air near a refinery or a paper mill. But there is another deadly form of pollution that you can't see. You can't hear it, you can't smell it, nor can you taste it. Unless you have a Geiger Counter, the only way we know that ionizing radiation is there is by what is happening to our bodies. There is a deadening silence surrounding this stealthy poison; we hear much less about the dangers of radiation than we do about exposure to toxic chemicals. Yet it is considered to be the 'perfect' carcinogen, one which can either start a cancer or promote one. It is also the one substance whose carcinogenicity is undisputed.

Exposure to radiation isn’t a modern phenomenon. Nor is cancer a modern disease. In fact, the cancers that have been discovered in ancient mummies, for instance, were probably caused by one or another natural source of radiation, such as the sun, or uranium, or radon from the soil. Those natural sources of radiation provide the omnipresent background level in which we all live. However, the natural background radiation which surrounds us today is two to three times higher than what the ancient Egyptians faced. Where does it come from?


Just east of the Bay Area is the Nevada Test Site, the size of Rhode Island on land that belongs to the Shoshone Indians. Over the years of atom bomb testing, more than 800 underground explosions were conducted after a decade of exploding nearly 100 bombs above ground. There were devastating health effects from those above-ground tests, so they were finally stopped. We were told that the underground tests were 'safe,' no one would be harmed by them. We believed it. I think our past faith in an assurance like this one should be a warning to us now: it is so easy to believe claims of safety from authorities because then we don't have to learn, or worry, or wage battle against what might seem like an invincible force. We can just go on with our lives. But, stop and think a moment. If you blow up something underground, what happens? You create gases. And where would underground gases go? Up. Slowly but surely, they would make their way to the surface, and they would be highly radioactive. Underground aquifers at the test site are poisoned. Thousands of grazing sheep near the test site have died from radiation sickness. St. George is a town in Utah which lies directly in the path of wind-borne radiation from the test site; there have been marked increases in cancer and other radiation-related illnesses there.

None of this compares with what happened at Chernobyl in 1986.


For the victims in Chernobyl.

Greenpeace channel: "20 years ago: Chernobyl" is a fast moving short film - like a music video - about the Chernobyl disaster and Greenpeace anti-nuke campaign. Film by Christoph Schwaiger. 3D animation by Tanooki. Archive material by Penninger archive. Music by Yap music.

It was on my birthday: April 26th. I remember the day well. The radio announcer said to hope it didn't rain, because the isotopes from Chernobyl which were making their way via the wind across the globe would descend to the earth with rain. I was at work, and my office windows looked out over the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. As I stood that afternoon by those windows gazing out at the dreary, overcast sky and thinking about Chernobyl, wondering what was happening to the people there, I watched as a gentle rain began to fall. It was the most desolate I've ever felt.

The news announcers told us that something like 50 million curies had escaped from Chernobyl, radioactive isotopes which were already traveling everywhere. I went to a conference in Texas several years later which was about the health effects of radiation exposure. One presenter from the Soviet Union spoke at that conference: Vladimir Chernousenko, a physicist who had been put in charge of the Chernobyl cleanup by Gorbachev. He was now living in exile in Germany where he was dying, he said, of radiation sickness. He left the Soviet Union because the USSR did not want him to tell the world what he had discovered. It was not 50 million curies which had escaped Chernobyl, said Chernousenko, it was 6.3 billion, a number I don't even know how to write. Those isotopes circle the globe and they last for many thousands of years. 


Here in the Bay Area we have some of our own nuclear hot spots. We have the Concord Naval Weapons Station where nuclear weapons were stored and component parts tested. Bayview Hunters Point in San Francisco is the site of the Navy's radiological laboratory during the Second World War, and they left a legacy of 50,000 barrels of nuclear waste which they dumped off the coast of the Farallon Islands. When the military conducted its above-ground atomic bomb explosion in 1946 in the Bikini Islands, they stationed a number of ships in the ocean near the island to see what would happen to them. Not too surprisingly, those ships became very radioactive. They were towed back to the shipyards at Bayview Hunters Point where military personnel attempted to 'clean' them. It wasn't possible, of course (it's hard to resist the urge to say 'Duh!' right here), so what couldn't be sold to third world countries as scrap metal was towed away and sunk off the Farallon Islands to join the barrels of radioactive waste already there. The mockery is that this area of the bay is now called a 'Marine Sanctuary.'

The Lawrence Laboratories in Berkeley routinely released doses of tritium for years. This transgression pales, however, next to the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, a nuclear weapons research facility which is a repository of plutonium, about 1,500 pounds of it. One microscopic particle if inhaled into one's lung can cause lung cancer. According to TRI Valley CARES, a lab watchdog organization, there have been six known releases of plutonium there into the soil, the groundwater, and the sludge from the lab. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.


On a wider scale, food irradiation is yet another source. Much of our food is tainted with deadly bacteria because our factory farming is brutally filthy and careless; rather than change the way we mass produce food, the agricultural industry chooses to kill the bacteria with radiation. The FDA insists that neither workers in a food irradiation facility nor their neighbors are in any danger from the radiation. Maybe. The same is said of nuclear power plants, however, and we know how fallacious that is. In any case, it's yet another place where radioactive substances are housed.

Lastly, there is no solution to the nuclear waste problem. None. We are continuing to stockpile the highly radioactive spent fuel rods year after year, with no idea of what to do with them but hope they don't heat up and burn thus releasing radioactive gases. So far we've been lucky. But luck doesn't last forever.

Because the dangers and the presence of ionizing radiation are so seldom spoken about, most people do not worry about it. And now, in the advent of global warming and greenhouse gases, we are being told that we need to revive the nuclear industry which had come to a halt following the accident at Chernobyl. This is a frightening and inane proposal for a number of reasons. One, the process of enriching uranium uses fossil fuel, producing the same greenhouse gases that nuclear power presumably avoids. Two, most nuclear power plants are in such rickety condition that they can't be insured, so if and when a big accident happens (and it will), we the people will be not only irreparably harmed, but we will also foot the bill. In the meantime, there are already thousands of small accidents every year in these aging plants.

But we don't hear about them. More than half a century ago, there was a curious agreement made between the World Health Organization and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). The mission of the WHO is to provide world leadership in matters of health. The mission of the IAEA is to promote nuclear power. These are clearly opposing purposes, since even the nuclear industry doesn't equate nuclear power with promoting health. Nevertheless, in 1959 these two organizations made a pact that the WHO would not release any information about radiation without clearance from the IAEA. It can't be a complete coincidence that the WHO has been silent regarding the health effects of radiation exposure.

In the absence of information, denial flourishes. In our culture, the resistance to recognition of danger from one's livelihood runs very deep, much more than most of us realize. More than once I have heard some objections to what I am saying about the causes of the cancer epidemic. Environmentalists, my dissenters protest, can't be right about the accusations they make of various businesses or manufacturers, because the executives of those companies have families, too, and they surely wouldn't want to hurt their own children. Some years ago I had a dramatic lesson in just how deep that denial can run.

The first time I spoke publicly about cancer was at a conference organized by Greenpeace and some other local organizations in Chicago. They gave me an hour to speak, and I was to be the last speaker before the lunch break. That was only a few years after I had learned about the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and I was so shocked and horrified by what I had learned that I spoke at length about the Hanford site in my speech. When I was finished and had stepped down from the podium, I was surrounded by people talking to me or asking questions. Suddenly I could see over the heads of the people near me a very tall man making his way in my direction. He was dressed in a dark, pin-striped suit, with a stylish white handkerchief peeking out from his upper left pocket, and he was red in the face, obviously furious, and coming right at me. When he broke through the people who were surrounding me, he blew up. In my face. Why, he shouted at me, did I talk about Hanford that way? Didn't I know it was the only source of clean energy? Did I want to condemn people to the poisons of burning coal? I'd better learn the facts before I talked about nuclear power that way, etc., etc. He thrust a business card at me and stomped off. I looked at the business card and it identified him as an engineer at Hanford. A short moment later another man came up to me and introduced himself as a friend of the man who had just yelled at me. He wanted to apologize for his friend, he said. And he wanted me to forgive his friend because the friend was dying of a brain tumor, and he was suing Hanford. I was flabbergasted. Dying, that enraged man vociferously and loudly defended the industry that was killing him.

A couple of weeks later, back at home, I was having a telephone conversation with an activist from HEAL (the Hanford downwinders), and I told her about my encounter with this man in Chicago. She wanted to know his name which I could give her because I still had his business card. 'I'm going to call him up,' she said. She called me back an hour or so later and told me he was dead. I thought of him when I heard Al Gore say in his film about global warming that it is very difficult to get someone to understand something that his salary is dependent on his not understanding. I knew Gore was right, but I also think it's the complete identification that many men in our society make with their jobs which contributes to the willful ignorance. If you impugn what a man does for a living in this culture, you undermine his very core.

The US military as well gets considerable credit for radioactive pollution. Of all the sources of environmental contamination, the military takes first prize for spreading deadly radioactivity. Not only have they left us barrels of radioactive waste and stored enough atomic arms to blow our planet out of its orbit, but they continue to poison many parts of the world with the ongoing use of depleted uranium in weapons. Depleted uranium (DU) is what is left over after the stuff for nuclear power plants is removed from the mined uranium, and it still remains highly radioactive. When combined with steel, it helps produce a very hard metal, harder than steel, so it's used for tanks and bullets. However, it burns spontaneously on impact, and in the resulting fire the radioactivity is released. We have turned Iraq into a radioactive desert, and a huge surge in the rate of cancers, especially in young children, is the result. U.S. soldiers are not exempt from the effects of DU, either. We've already seen some effects from the use of DU in the Balkans as the ash from burning DU makes its way back home. The scope of the effect is yet to come however, for many cancers take years to develop.


There are numerous other avenues of exposure to ionizing radiation. For instance, the use of medical x-rays and CT-scans has more than tripled in the past few decades. With our haphazard medical delivery system (a test being ordered by this doctor here and another test being ordered by that doctor there with no communication between the two ' or three or four ' physicians), Americans get more medical radiation than anyone else in the world, and the doses accumulate over time. Added to all the other avenues of exposure, the overuse of x-ray technology is a serious indictment of a profession whose motto is, 'first do no harm.' 

All told, it's a pretty grim picture with no relief in sight. Still, some small steps in the right direction have been taken.

For example, several cities in the Bay Area have adopted the Precautionary Principle as part of city policy. The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action ' a sort of 'look before you leap' carefulness. That's very different from our present approach which I call the 'pile of bodies' approach; that is, we allow anything to be released into our environment and don't begin to raise questions about its safety until the pile of bodies is too high to ignore.

The threat of nuclear war and/or a nuclear accident has never died, and climate change waits for no one. Certainly the first step, however, is having a clear understanding of just what it is we need to change. The cancer epidemic is a pretty strong hint. We ignore it at our continued peril. 

The complete article, “A Long View of a Social Disease”, can be requested at