Radiation doses and cancer risks in the Marshall Islands associated with exposure to radioactive fallout from Bikini and Enewetak nuclear weapons tests: summary

Steven L Simon, André Bouville, Charles E Land, Harold L Beck
Health Physics 2010, 99 (2): 105-23
Nuclear weapons testing conducted at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls during 1946-1958 resulted in exposures of the resident population of the present-day Republic of the Marshall Islands to radioactive fallout. This paper summarizes the results of a thorough and systematic reconstruction of radiation doses to that population, by year, age at exposure, and atoll of residence, and the related cancer risks. Detailed methods and results are presented in a series of companion papers in this volume. From our analysis, we concluded that 20 of the 66 nuclear tests conducted in or near the Marshall Islands resulted in measurable fallout deposition on one or more of the inhabited atolls of the Marshall Islands. In this work, we estimated deposition densities (kBq m(-2)) of all important dose-contributing radionuclides at each of the 32 atolls and separate reef islands of the Marshall Islands. Quantitative deposition estimates were made for 63 radionuclides from each test at each atoll. Those estimates along with reported measurements of exposure rates at various times after fallout were used to estimate radiation absorbed doses to the red bone marrow, thyroid gland, stomach wall, and colon wall of atoll residents from both external and internal exposure. Annual doses were estimated for six age groups ranging from newborns to adults. We found that the total deposition of 137Cs, external dose, internal organ doses, and cancer risks followed the same geographic pattern with the large population of the southern atolls receiving the lowest doses. Permanent residents of the southern atolls who were of adult age at the beginning of the testing period received external doses ranging from 5 to 12 mGy on average; the external doses to adults at the mid-latitude atolls ranged from 22 to 59 mGy on average, while the residents of the northern atolls received external doses in the hundreds to over 1,000 mGy. Internal doses varied significantly by age at exposure, location, and organ. Except for internal doses to the thyroid gland, external exposure was generally the major contributor to organ doses, particularly for red bone marrow and stomach wall. Internal doses to the stomach wall and red bone marrow were similar in magnitude, about 1 mGy to 7 mGy for permanent residents of the southern and mid-latitude atolls. However, adult residents of Utrik and Rongelap Island, which are part of the northern atolls, received much higher internal doses because of intakes of short-lived radionuclides leading to doses from 20 mGy to more than 500 mGy to red bone marrow and stomach wall. In general, internal doses to the colon wall were four to ten times greater than those to the red bone marrow and internal doses to the thyroid gland were 20 to 30 times greater than to the red bone marrow. Adult internal thyroid doses for the Utrik community and for the Rongelap Island community were about 760 mGy and 7,600 mGy, respectively. The highest doses were to the thyroid glands of young children exposed on Rongelap at the time of the Castle Bravo test of 1 March 1954 and were about three times higher than for adults. Internal doses from chronic intakes, related to residual activities of long-lived radionuclides in the environment, were, in general, low in comparison with acute exposure resulting from the intakes of radionuclides immediately or soon after the deposition of fallout. The annual doses and the population sizes at each atoll in each year were used to develop estimates of cancer risks for the permanent residents of all atolls that were inhabited during the testing period as well as for the Marshallese population groups that were relocated prior to the testing or after it had begun. About 170 excess cancers (radiation-related cases) are projected to occur among more than 25,000 Marshallese, half of whom were born before 1948. All but about 65 of those cancers are estimated to have already been expressed. The 170 excess cancers are in comparison to about 10,600 cancers that would spontaneously arise, unrelated to radioactive fallout, among the same cohort of Marshallese people.

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