Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Monday, August 6, 1945. Three B-29 Superfortress bombers appear over Hiroshima. At 8:15 a.m. the Enola Gay's bomb-bay doors open. "Little Boy," The world's first uranium bomb, plunged earthward. Colonel Paul W. Tibbets turns his plane upward and away from the rising mushroom cloud. Major Charles W. Sweany, piloting the Great Artiste, dropped radiation measuring instru ments, then followed the Enola Gay. Within minutes, three-fifths of Hiroshima vanished. The pressure wave, fire, acute radiation, and thermal burns claimed over 70,000 lives.

Thursday, August 9, 1945, Major Charles W. Sweeny, this time driving Bock-scar, a borrowed B-29, lifted off the tarmac at Saipan, on its way to Kokura— the site of the second coming of a nuclear bomb. Once over the target city, it was evident that fog and clouds were too thick for a bomb site to pierce. Major Sweeny' s orders were to proceed to his second target of opportunity. He turned southeast for Nagasaki. At 11:01 a.m. , the bomb-bay doors opened.

"Fat Man," a plutonium bomb, fell swiftly. A multicolored mushroom cloud rose faster than at Hiroshima, demolishing the steelworks, arms factory, and thousands of residential buildings, and taking the lives of another 70,000+ people [3] .

On the basis of President Harry L. Truman's directive to initiate a long-term and comprehensive epidemiologic and genetic study of the atomic bomb survivors, and there were many, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) was established in Hiroshima in 1947 and in Nagasaki in 1948. For 25 years the ABCC studied the effects of atomic radiation until it was replaced in 1975 by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), a nonprofit Japanese foundation funded by both the Japanese Ministry of Health and the U.S. Department of Energy [4]. To this day, it remains the foremost international research collaboration, conducting large-scale, systematic studies of the long-term effects of radiation. The RERF has benefited, and continues to benefit, from four groups of individuals: a cohort of 120,000 survivors; the "life span study" (LSS), which has followed this cohort over the past 50 years; by means of a national death certificate retrieval system; and the "adult health study" (AHS), which follows a subsample of 20,000 survivors using twice-yearly health examinations. More recently mortality studies have been augmented by cancer incidence studies using their tumor registries from both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have a cohort of some 3000 individuals who were in utero at the time of the bombing.

In a recent publication, Dr. Itsumo Shigematsu, Director of the RERF, informs us that the ABCC's first large-scale program was a genetic study of the first-generation children of survivors. The REFR' s genetic investigators, who have taken over the ABCC's studies, have, he wrote, "searched vigorously for heritable effects of radiation in the off-spring of the survivors. Not a single one of the many end points has shown a significant effect. The data suggest that humans are not unusually sensitive to the genetic effects of radiation and, further, are probably not as sensitive as had been initially extrapolated from experiments in mice." [4]—a crucial determination to be borne in mind.

Dr. William J. Shull went to Japan in 1949, at age 29, to head up the ABCC's Department of Genetics. For the ensuing five decades he was a key researcher. His recent book, Effects of Atomic Radiation: A Half-Century of Studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki [5], is an engrossing and sober account of the results of observing, testing, recording, and interpreting the data obtained from the survivors and their children and grandchildren. Much of what follows comes from Dr. Shull's book.

As cancer is a fact of life and an unwelcome condition in every human society, it challenged the ABCC's scientists with a conundrum: Which of the survivor 's cancers were radiation-induced, and which were not? No tags or labels offer an insight as to cause. We also know that some organs are more sensitive to radiation than others and that, depending on the site, younger people are at higher risk than older individuals. Over the 47 years from 1950 to 1997, time enough for cancers to express themselves, the LSS, with a cohort of 86,572 survivors, registered 9335 deaths from solid tumors—liver, pancreas, brain, and colon. Of these, 440 were associated with radiation exposure. Perhaps of prime importance was the observation that "there is no direct evidence of radiation effects for doses less than 0.5 Sv. Furthermore, about half of the original LSS cohort was alive at the end of the follow-up period, which suggests that there remains more to be garnered on long-term radiation effects" [6]. Be that as it may, the number of radiation-induced cancer deaths, thus far 440, must be an unimaginable revelation. The common wisdom would have it in the thousands.

The ABCC and RERF mandate was not limited to cancer. Fertility, for example, measured as chance of fertilization, successful reproduction, time between beginning of cohabitation and first pregnancy, and first live-born delivery, were not altered by radiation exposure. And what of chromosomal abnormalities? This, of course, is of critical concern as chromosomes are the vehicle for transmitting genetic information from generation to generation. As malignant tumors and chromosomal abnormalities are frequently associated, the researchers fully expected high numbers. They found no evidence of Down's syndrome or alterations in six ratios. They quite reasonably searched for biochemical changes. Using blood samples obtained from children of survivors, electrophoretic studies were done to detect abnormal proteins. Both enzyme and nonenzyme proteins were checked for 28 proteins of the blood plasma and red cells. After more than a 1.25 million tests, four mutations were found among children whose parents received more than 0.01 Sv. Of the 500 combined pregnancies in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki exposed to more than 0.01 Gy, 25 terminated with an infant with mental retardation, higher than the four or five normally expected, and a number of pregnancies terminated with infants with small heads; that is, two or more standard deviations below the average.

Among 1473 individuals ages 9-19, on whom head sizes were measured, 62 had a small head. Some were mentally retarded; some were not. In utero exposure to ionizing radiation increases the frequency of mental retardation. There was also a loss of some 25 IQ points among those exposed to 1 Gy or more. Prenatal exposure to 1 Gy appears to entail a loss in average school performance scores of about 1.6, which is equivalent to a shift of an average student from a score of 3 to about 1.4, that is, from the middle 50th percentile of a class to the lower 5th or 10th.

Ocular damage was yet another concern. Of some 464 individuals exposed in utero, 309 were examined. Only one, a male, had any degree of opacity.

Shull refers to a major concern of survivors—that of premature aging and dying. This was another challenge as, after all, what are normal signs of aging? Gray hair, loss of hair, wrinkled and coarse skin, and losses of hearing and vision. Other signs are the loss of smell, taste, and memory; spots on the skin; and the inability to walk or run as fast as one used to. But "premature aging" also refers to a time well before what is considered normal. As life expectancy increases, so does the age of premature death, which surely varies by country and time. As many of the survivors are still alive, definitive answers will emerge only as that cohort expires.

From the LSS it has become apparent that radiation at any level is not a health risk. It was also found that congenital abnormalities did not occur following the bombings, nor is there, Shull tells us "evidence that the health and development of children of survivors has been measurably impaired." Although there certainly are excess cancers among the survivors, the numbers are for smaller than the common wisdom reckoned. Dr. Shull's book should be required reading for elected officials at all levels of government, as well as students and teachers in our public and private high schools and universities, and of course for journalists. They would all be well rewarded. By the way, it is of more than passing interest that 2 weeks after dropping the bomb on Nagasaki, Major Sweeny visited Nagasaki and stood on the spot where the bomb was dropped. Major Sweeny died at age 84, on July 16, 2005. Major Sweeny had a good deal of company in Nagasaki. On New Year's Day, 1946, Marines of the 2nd Division played football in the "Atom Bowl" in Nagasaki. The Marines arrived in Nagasaki in September 1945, 6 weeks after "Fat Man," the 22-kiloton bomb had been dropped.

As Christmas approached, the Marines were feeling homesick, and to lift their spirits, Colonel Gerald Sanders organized a football game. Debris was cleared away, and Atomic Athletic Field 2 was prepared. In the game, the Nagasaki Bears, led by Angelo Bertelli, Notre Dame's star quarterback, lost by 14 to 13 to Bullet Bill Osmanski's Isahaya's Tigers. Osmanski, a Holy Cross star, led the NFL in rushing in 1939, as fullback for the Chicago Bears.

Colonel Sanders, 81, the game ' s last surviving participant, now living in Oxford, Ohio, also organized a Japanese children ' s choir for the Christmas festivities. None of the participants were concerned about radiation, and after the game the Japanses fans who watched the game left arm in arm with the Marines [7].

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