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Some Workers who Produced Nuclear Weapon Materials Died of Leukemia

Updated on March 2, 2014

A positive association was found between ionizing radiation and death due to leukemia (blood cancer)

Two researchers “investigated associations between ionizing radiation and leukemia mortality among workers at the Savannah River Site” in South Carolina.

“A positive association was observed between leukemia mortality and radiation dose under a 3-year lag assumption (excess relative rate/10 mSv ¼ 0.04, 90% confidence interval: 0.00, 0.12).”

This was the conclusion of the study entitled "Leukemia Mortality among Workers at the Savannah River Site" (Richardson. D.B. and S. Wing. Am J Epidemiol 2007;166:1015–1022).

Researchers “focused on ionizing radiation from external sources and internal doses of tritium. Causes of death among18,883 workers hired between 1950 and 1986 were followed through 2002....”

Tritium had a negligible association with death owing to leukemia, the researchers reported.

“The Savannah River Site, located near Aiken, South Carolina, was constructed in 1950 by E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (DuPont) to produce materials for the US nuclear weapons program,” according to the researchers.

Details of findings

“With follow-up through 2002, we found that 27 percent of the study cohort was deceased (5,098 workers), 72 percent of the cohort was alive at the end of follow-up (13,590 workers), and 1 percent of the cohort was lost to followup (195 workers). Information on cause of death was collected for 99 percent of decedents (5,047 workers). In total, 84 leukemia deaths were observed, of which 73 were cases for whom leukemia was listed as the underlying cause of death. Acute myeloid leukemia accounted for 29 cases, chronic myeloid leukemia for 10 cases, acute lymphocytic leukemia for four cases, and CLL for 22 cases; the remainder consisted of monocytic leukemia (n ¼ 2) and other and unspecified leukemias (n ¼ 17).” This is part of the report of the researchers.

The study above ends with the conclusion that there is an association between death owing to leukemia and exposure to radiation among workers in the nuclear plant in Savanna. It did not deal with the cause of leukemia and how to treat leukemia.

Ionizing radiation

This radiation consists of ultraviolet light that delivers energy higher than that of visible light. Take a look into the electromagnetic spectrum from the shortest to the longest. The shortest has the highest energy; the longest has the lowest energy. The positions of electromagnetic waves are as follows: (1) galactic cosmic waves, (2) gamma rays, (3) X-rays, (4) ultraviolet light, (5) visible light, (6) infrared light, (7) microwaves and radar, (8) TV and FM radio, (9) shortwave radio, (10) AM radio, (11) aircraft and shipping bands (Goldsmith, M., Dr. Guglielmo Marconi. 2003:5).

Ultraviolet rays can deliver energy of 1216 kcal per mol. That is enough to excite an electron of an atom in the body, especially the skin (Brown, LeMay, and Bursten. Chemistry The Central Science. 7th edition. 1977).

This amount of energy can excite one electron of molecular oxygen, the kind of oxygen that we breathe and use in metabolism. Molecular oxygen consists of two atoms of oxygen joined together by six electrons in their outer orbital. An orbital is the path of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. Molecular oxygen has two unpaired electrons in its outermost orbital, designated as O22-. The two unpaired electrons spin around the nucleus in parallel direction.

When excited by ionizing radiation, one of the unpaired electron reverses its direction (Prasad. M. Heavy Metals in Plants. 1999:103). Thus the two unpaired electrons now spin in opposite directions. The nature of this molecule of oxygen had changed and is now called singlet oxygen.

Because molecular oxygen and singlet oxygen have unpaired electrons they are called free radicals. Their free unpaired electrons are unstable and to stabilize themselves, each grab another electron of another molecule that belongs to a tissue. This grabbing causes injury to the tissue. The electron so grabbed may belong to the DNA or a chromosome, the heredity material. The nature of this DNA is changed that results in the mutation then to tumor or cancer.

Because the unpaired electrons of molecular oxygen spin in parallel direction, they can only grab one electron of another molecule at a time. The two unpaired electrons of singlet oxygen can grab two electrons of other molecules at the same time owing to their opposite spin. Therefore, singlet oxygen is more hazardous than molecular oxygen.

Leukemia is cancer of the white blood cells. (Blood consists of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.) When their DNA is injured, their cell division turns uncontrolled. White blood cells overgrow and crowd out the red blood cells whose population decreases. Red blood cells carry oxygen that is why they cannot deliver enough oxygen to the body of the victim of leukemia when their population is reduced.

Not enough supply of oxygen brings about other complications like production of energy not enough for the needs of the body and organs that the victim eventually dies. Since the white blood cells are involved in immunity, the immune system of the person is impaired making him/her vulnerable to several diseases.

Seventy-five percent of inhaled oxygen is used up in metabolism and 25% is exhaled. Molecular oxygen is used in the metabolism of glucose that produces energy with a by-product, superoxide, a free radical that does damage to cells.

No built-in antidote

An antidote to free radicals is called antioxidants. Our body has built-in enzyme antioxidants. The enzyme can be recycled. We have superoxide dismutase (SOD) that catches free radicals like superoxide that is a master free radical. It is so-called because it can produce several siblings. SOD attaches one electron and one atom of hydrogen to a superoxide to produce hydrogen peroxide (Sharma, H., MD. Freedom from Disease. 1993). This is called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that acts like a free radical. When superoxide reacts with nitric oxide, peroxynitrite is produced, another ROS. A superoxide that reacts with another superoxide in the presence of iron produces hydroxyl free radical, the most dangerous free radical. A superoxide that reacts with another superoxide in the presence of copper produces alkoxy radical, a ROS.

Glutathione peroxidase, another built-in enzyme antioxidant, dismantles hydrogen peroxide into safe water.

However, our body has no antioxidant against the singlet oxygen (Cranton, E., MD. Bypassing Bypass. Updated second edition.1995). That could be the reason why leukemia prospers among workers exposed to ionizing radiation.

The only antidote to singlet oxygen is carotene that is a precursor of vitamin A. Carotene is found in colored vegetables, like carrot, and fruits. Carotene is related to chlorophyll that traps energy from sunlight for use in the production of carbohydrates. Carotene absorbs heat that has an ionizing effect. Heat is then disposed off to the environment. Carotene can prevent ionization of molecular oxygen into singlet oxygen.

Cure for leukemia

Leukemia can be treated with the decoction of periwinkle or tsitsirika.

Likewise, leukemia can be cured by stem cell therapy. The cord blood contains stem cells that are now being used to cure leukemia (Bellomo, M. The Stem Cell Divide. 2005). Cord blood is collected during the delivery of a baby. It can be stored in a blood bank.[I have a Hub that elaborates the use of cord blood, “”How Heritable Breast Cancer and Ovarian Cancer Develop into Full-blown Cancer.”]

To lessen production of hydroxyl and alkoxy radicals. iron and copper are chelated out with the use of chelating agents like EDTA (ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetate). EDTA is an antioxidant. A Huber reported that residents near nuclear power plants in USA are buying a lot of kelp that contain sodium iodide. This compound is intended as a protection against radiation. Some researches had reported that persons lacking in iodine are prone to thyroid gland cancer.


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