At least 340,000 Americans died from radioactive fallout between 1951 and 1973
Domestic nuclear testing wreaked havoc on thousands of families.
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. But new research shows that domestic U.S. nuclear tests likely killed more.
- The new research tracked an unlikely vector for radioactive transmission: dairy cows.
- The study serves as a reminder of the insidious and deadly nature of nuclear weapons.
When we think of nuclear disasters, a few names probably come to mind. There's the Chernobyl disaster, which killed around 27,000 people, although estimates are fuzzy. After Fukushima, there were no deaths due to radiation poisoning, but this event occurred relatively recently, and radiation poisoning often kills slowly over decades. When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, estimates put the death toll at around 200,000 people, but again, exact numbers are difficult to calculate.
One name that almost certainly didn't come to mind is Nevada. When the Soviet Union detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, the U.S. was shocked into action. America's prior nuclear testing had been carried out in the Pacific, but it was logistically slow and costly to conduct tests there. In order to maintain dominance over the growing Soviet threat, the U.S. selected a 1,375 square-mile area in Nye County, Nevada.
This was an ideal spot for several reasons. It was closer than Bikini Atoll. The weather was predictable and very dry, reducing the risk that radioactive fallout would be dispersed by rainstorms. It was sparsely populated. There was an understanding that there would be some amount of risk posed to nearby civilians, but it was deemed acceptable at the time. The trouble is, our understanding of radioactive fallout was still in its infancy. It was a catch-22; the only way to learn more was to test nuclear weapons.
New research with a wider scope
Subsidence craters at the Nevada test site. These craters result from underground weapons testing, typically from nuclear weapons. Federal Government of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the 1950s, the U.S. government downplayed the danger of radioactive fallout, asserting that all radioactivity was confined to the Nevada test site. Despite this, a national estimate attributed 49,000 cancer deaths to nuclear testing in the area.
But the results of new research suggest that this number is woefully inaccurate. Using a novel method, and today's improved understanding of radioactive fallout, Keith Meyers from the University of Arizona discovered that U.S. nuclear testing was responsible for the deaths of at least as many — and likely more — as those killed by the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Specifically, between 340,000 and 690,000 Americans died from radioactive fallout from 1951 to 1973.
Prior studies generally looked at the areas surrounded the Nevada test site and estimated the deaths caused by fallout from the area. This number was relatively low, owing to the dry, predictable weather mentioned earlier. However, the bulk of the deaths were actually dispersed throughout the country, primarily in the Midwest and Northeast regions. These deaths were caused by an unfortunate synergy between meteorology, radiation, and — perhaps oddly enough — cows.
An unforeseen vector of radiation poisoning
Through an unforeseen chain of events, dairy cows became a vector for radioactive poisoning. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Image
Out of all the radioactive elements produced by a nuclear explosion, iodine-131 was the biggest killer. I-131 has an eight-day half-life, tends to accumulate in the thyroid gland, and emits beta and gamma radiation. While alpha radiation is generally weak and doesn't penetrate material very well, beta and gamma radiation are highly energetic and shoot through clothing and flesh, ripping up DNA as it goes along.
Prior studies had examined the radioactive fallout dispersed by low-altitude winds, which would generally settle around the Nevada test site. However, a significant amount of I-131 was caught up in high-altitude winds. These winds carried the radioactive particles to other regions of the U.S., where it mixed with rain clouds.
The now-radioactive rain fell onto the grasslands in the Midwest and Northeast. Then, cows ate the now-radioactive grass. The cows then produced radioactive milk. Dairy practices during the study period were different than they are today — most people drank milk that had recently been extracted from local cows.
Thanks to a National Cancer Institute database that contains broad data on radiation exposure, Meyers was able to track the amount of I-131 found in local milk and compare this with the number and nature of deaths on a county level. In this way, Meyers was able to determine that a significant number of these deaths were due to drinking poisoned milk. These civilians would have had no idea that the milk they were drinking had been irradiated by nuclear explosions hundreds of miles away.
Ironically, the area around the Nevada test site didn't have this problem. Although they too drank fresh milk from local cows, they imported hay from other parts of the country. Since their cows weren't eating irradiated hay, the local Nevadans took in significantly less radioactive material than their less-fortunate, distant countrymen.
Although our understanding of radiation and nuclear fallout is much improved since the dawn of the nuclear age, the study serves as a warning of the insidious nature of nuclear weapons. Containing nuclear fallout is challenging, even when you know where all of the vectors of radioactive transmission are. The complexity and intertwining nature of our ecological and social systems means that words like "clean," "precise," or "surgical" will likely never apply to nuclear weapons.
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The federal government and private insurers greatly increased Americans' telehealth access during the pandemic. Will these changes be permanent?
- When telehealth visits began skyrocketing at the start of the pandemic, hospitals had to increase their number of virtual appointments by magnitudes. Most did it seamlessly.
- Big Think spoke to Dr. Martin Doerfler, director of the Office of Clinical Transformation at Northwell Health, about this transition and how it benefited patients.
- Telehealth has proven its value during the pandemic, but it might stop evolving unless the federal government redesigns the regulatory framework—particularly in terms of reimbursements.
What are the obstacles facing telehealth?<p>One of the biggest obstacles to widespread adoption of telehealth has been a lack of national legislation providing financial incentive for health centers to adopt it.</p><p>"Telehealth has been limited from really having anywhere close to its potential based upon the regulatory framework that it lives in," Doerfler said.</p><p>States laws vary on how practitioners are paid for telehealth visits. In some states, laws require insurance providers to cover telehealth visits at parity—the same rate as in-person visits. But in states without parity laws, there's little incentive for health care organizations to invest in telehealth infrastructure and training.</p><p>Access is also a major obstacle. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) generally reimburse practitioners for telehealth visits only when patients live in "designated rural underserved areas."</p><p>But not all underserved areas are in small, remote places. After all, a single parent living in Queens, New York, might also have trouble accessing quality healthcare.</p><p>"Three hours to drive 200 miles is no different than three hours to take two trains, two buses and a cab," Doerfler said. "So access is almost certainly going to be improved by the greater availability of telehealth in that direct-to-patient, in-their-home-or-office, setting."</p><p>Lack of internet access is also a problem. A <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2768771?appId=scweb" target="_blank">paper</a> published by the JAMA Network in August found that 41 percent of Medicare beneficiaries don't have a computer at home with access to high-speed internet, and roughly the same number don't have a smartphone with an unlimited data plan.</p>
What is the future of telehealth?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1NTU1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjA1MjkxMH0.1UuR6tky1k58rOeE9Vcgt8bUfhA2vut6yaCAXik1MEY/img.jpg?width=980" id="9f55b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4549f30a0347a85c7145690870cf742c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Caucasian female doctor delivering telemedicine consultation to a patient" />
Credit: Daniilvolkov via AdobeStock<p>Lawmakers in both parties and health care professionals have indicated a desire to make permanent some of the regulatory changes to telehealth enacted during the pandemic. That's key, because without the financial incentives to continue expanding telehealth, health care providers may revert to the pre-pandemic approach.</p><p>"One issue, which people who are not in health care might not understand, is that telehealth will continue to expand dramatically as long as there's funding and reimbursement for it," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "If the insurance companies and government decide, 'We don't want to pay for telehealth going forward or virtual visits,' then it's going to slow down. If there is no delivery system, no health care system or doctor is going to continue to expand telehealth if they don't get paid for it."</p><p>Yet some of the nation's biggest insurers have already <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/29/united-healthcare-anthem-telemedicine-coverage-insurers/" target="_blank">stopped waiving</a> telehealth deductibles and copays for some customers, even though there's no clear end in sight for the pandemic.</p><p>The long-term solution, Doerfler said, is for CMS to start paying for telehealth services, at parity, up and down the chain. He added that, while telehealth can't replace all traditional health care services, it should be "<a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/how-to-have-an-effective-telehealth-visit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in the toolbox</a>" for patients and physicians.</p><p>"In the modern world, where this type of technology is being used for all sorts of personal and business uses, excluding something as personal as your care between you and your doctor from fitting into that modern paradigm makes no sense," Doerfler said.</p>
The theory could resolve some unanswered questions.
- Most stars begin in binary systems, why not ours?
- Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
- The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.
If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.
The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The Oort cloud
Image source: NASA
Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.
Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)
No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.
It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."
"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."
Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."
Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA
The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.
"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."
The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."
Missing in action
Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."
So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."
Younger Americans support expanding the Supreme Court and serious political reforms, says new poll.
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Another amazing tardigrade survival skill is discovered.
- Apparently, some water bears can even beat extreme UV light.
- It may be an adaptation to the summer heat in India.
- Special under-skin pigments neutralize harmful rays.
Stressor testing<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjc2MDc4Mn0.5R6DAfzsq29zvETCEH1sR9rprcnJv_L0KyUW2qedslE/img.jpg?width=980" id="c6b71" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e7afe644fc94631ed9ea6837ed3920d3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="water bear illustration" />
3D illustration of a tardigrade
Credit: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock<p>It seems at times like scientists enjoy playing the "let's see if <em>this</em> kills them" game with tardigrades, a game that humans usually lose. After searching the campus of the Indian Institute of Science, researchers gathered some water bears and brought them back to the lab to see what they could handle.</p><p>The scientists found that after they exposed <a href="http://cshprotocols.cshlp.org/content/2018/11/pdb.emo102301.full" target="_blank"><em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em></a> tardigrades to very high doses — 1 kilojoule (kJ) per square meter — of UV light for about 15 minutes, they would in fact die over the next 24 hours. However, when they aimed the same blasts at the reddish-brown tardigrades…nothing. The humans even quadrupled the UV intensity and, nope, they tracked the water bears for 30 days, and a majority of them, 60 percent, were still fine.</p><p>As is often the case with tardigrades, the question is how?</p>
Turning deadly light blue<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU1MzIwMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMTM1NTE2N30.n8FiCLgp5aTqmYby2bjpeu9QJRTV7KzaB9tmTHBzWtk/img.jpg?width=980" id="5d4cc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7aa8735a958123bcfb269920eb4d2aed" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Tardigrade's normal appearance (left), and under inverted fluorescence (right)
Credit: Suma et al., Biology Letters (2020)<p>When the researchers examined the tardigrades under an inverted fluorescence microscope they found that when they were exposed to UV light, they became blue. The researchers' hypothesis is that these tardigrades carry fluorescent pigments beneath their skin that they deploy as necessary to transform UV light into simple benign, blue light. It may be that this ability has emerged as an evolutionary response to southern tropical India's often-extreme heat. The study says that typical summer-day UV levels in this region are about 4kJ per square meter.</p><p>Of the 40 percent of the reddish-brown tardigrades that had died before 30 days — mostly after about 20 days — the scientists concluded they had less pigment with which to neutralize UV light.</p><p>When the scientists extracted the pigment from the UV champions and coated some <em>Hypsibius exemplaris</em> tardigrades with the stuff, their resistance to UV exposure was also enhanced, boosting their survival rate to almost twice that of their uncoated brethren.</p><p>Autofluorescence has been found in other animals — parrots, scorpions, chameleons, and frogs, among others — so it's not completely unheard of. In parrots, for example, autofluorescence is hypothesized to be involved in tweaking coloration during mating rituals. Still, surprise, tardigrades seem to be putting it to unusual use by employing it for UV protection. </p>
Rare structures and artifacts of the Viking religion practiced centuries prior to Christianity's introduction have been uncovered by archaeologists in Norway, including a "god house."