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Winter/Spring 2008 Vol. 8 No. 1



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Speakers and participants at December 2007 symposium to celebrate 60 years of research on atomic bomb survivors and radiation effects, held at the National Academy of Sciences, photos by William Geiger After the Fallout



Study on Atomic Bomb Survivors Marks 60 Years


Following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, President Truman turned to the National Academy of Sciences to examine the health of the survivors and the possible genetic effects on their future children. Sixty years later, the study continues to uncover new information about how radiation affects the human body. This unprecedented success is due to the steadfast leadership, dedicated employees, and loyal study participants of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) and its predecessor, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC).


Today, approximately 40 percent of the blast survivors -- and 80 percent of those who were younger than 20 at the time -- are still alive. In fact, in one of the study cohorts, more than 70 percent of the survivors continue to participate in biennial health exams. To commemorate 60 years of this groundbreaking study, the National Academy of Sciences held a symposium at its headquarters last December.

Speakers and participants at December 2007 symposium to celebrate 60 years of research on atomic bomb survivors and radiation effects, held at the National Academy of Sciences, photos by William Geiger"When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, I was outside on the street, at a distance of about 1.2 kilometers from the hypocenter, and I was badly burned all over my body," recalled Sunao Tsuboi while addressing symposium attendees. Speakers and participants at December 2007 symposium to celebrate 60 years of research on atomic bomb survivors and radiation effects, held at the National Academy of Sciences, photos by William Geiger"Four days later, I lost consciousness and remained in a coma for about 40 days, unaware even of Japan's surrender. We survivors of the atomic bombs were the first people in human history to experience atomic bombs. [It is] my belief that RERF will continue to make the utmost in contribution. I'm now 80 years old, and I still feel young."

With the goal of maintaining the health and welfare of survivors, such as Tsuboi, the initial research at ABCC focused on determining early medical effects, such as acute radiation syndrome and cataracts. Follow-up studies looked at cancer and benign tumor risks, as well as the effects on the aging process and immune system. To develop accurate health risk assessments, scientists also estimated the radiation doses received by survivors. Researchers found that the number of leukemia and other cancer incidences and deaths increased in proportion to radiation dose and that the health effects varied depending on the amount of radiation received.

These findings allowed the survivors to understand possible consequences of their exposures, because at the time, no one knew what the potential long-term effects would be. The research results also significantly contributed to establishing radiation dose limits for protection standards around the world. Moreover, what emerged was a broader understanding of how radiation interacts with the human body, and how radiation could be used for good, such as in medical diagnoses and treatment. Scientists from the around the world, including those involved with Chernobyl and other radiation incidents, have visited ABCC/RERF over the years to study radiation's effects.

"What we learned, and are still learning, helped pave the path for nuclear medicine, the use of radiation in oncology, and the ability for nuclear power to provide energy," said Evan Douple, associate chief of research at RERF. "The wealth of knowledge the survivors gave is truly a gift to all of mankind."

Just as remarkable throughout the years has been the cooperative effort between the United States and Japan, even during the first decade when some survivors distrusted ABCC and its motives. However, ties eventually strengthened, and in 1975 ABCC reorganized to form RERF, a joint U.S.-Japan research organization.

The vast pool of knowledge, which continues to grow, provides a strong foundation for RERF's future. As technologies evolve and emerge, RERF will have the potential to yield new information for radiation biology, the interaction of radiation with living systems, and all uses of radiation for the public good.   -- Jennifer Walsh

The Radiation Effects Research Foundation is a project of the Division on Earth and Life Studies, administered through its Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board. RERF is managed by a binational board of directors consisting of resident and visiting directors. Scientific research activities are carried out on the basis of recommendations of a binational, 10-member scientific council. On the Internet at <www.rerf.or.jp/>.



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Copyright 2008 by the National Academy of Sciences