It all sounds like something out of a science fiction novel: 'a catastrophic nuclear war in 2030 covers the Earth with toxic radioactive fallout that gives rise to mutant viruses which infect and destroy surviving clusters of humans...' But, back in the 1950s, the so-called ‘father of the [Soviet] hydrogen bomb’ predicted that the radioactive fallout from the ‘Cold War’ could accelerate the rise of mutant pathogens, including influenzas.
Andrei Sakharov, the atomic scientist-turned-critic, wrote in his book 'Memoirs' (published last decade) that in the late 1950s he suggested 'that a global increase in mutations of bacteria and viruses...might have been an important factor in the spread of such diseases as diphtheria in the nineteenth century, or the influenza epidemic, and that low-level radiation might further increase the rate of mutations.’
Sakharov's 1950’s prediction may have come true according to a rare grouping of scientists who have connected the rise of certain diseases and disorders with the peaking of radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants on regional scales or nuclear testing on a global scale. Sara Shannon, author of 'Technology's Curse: Diet for the Atomic Age,' wrote in the late 1990s that new ailments such as Reyes Syndrome, Legionnaire's Disease, and Lyme Disease (and possibly AIDS) may be related to the deadly combination of immune systems weakened and virus mutations worsened by the presence of man-made radiation. Shannon notes that Lyme Disease appeared in about the same year that a huge radiation release from one of two Connecticut nuclear power plants occurred. She speculated that the radioactive fallout in southeastern Connecticut may have mutated the spirochete in tick-borne Lyme Disease, which has now spread to Canada and numerous U.S. states. If you consider that nuclear testing fallout spread to nearly every square mile of the Earth, still hasn’t fully decayed and is detectable in nearly every country's food chains, including livestock, then you get a better idea of the possibility that all viruses or bacteria everywhere have an increased chance of mutating into something worse.
Think of our unfortunate porcine friend, ‘Pig Zero,’ the ‘swine flu’ virus breeder who resides (crammed into a tiny gestation crate) at a factory farm in North America. It’s bad enough that this poor flu-stricken pig’s cellular tissue and organs contain particles of fallout-originated Plutonium-239 or Cesium-137 that daily irradiate surrounding tissue (and fellow pigs with strong gamma rays). Then comes along a few particles of the flu’s virus (that’s keeping ‘Pig Zero’ feeling down), and, eureka! Can you say mutation?
No one knows with any certainty how many fatalities - some estimate in the many millions of persons - will be attributed in the long run to our past and current atomic mistakes. As details continually emerge surrounding the secret nuclear activities during the Cold War, estimates keep on growing: a Japanese physicist last month estimated that 190,000 persons may have died from the legacy of Chinese atomic testing. The question is Will Cold War-bred ‘Andromeda Strains,’ radiation-influenced new influenzas and diseases, wreak even more harm on humans and the animal kingdom? I am reminded by one of the most powerful quotes on the topic by Albert Schweitzer: ‘That radioactive elements created by us are found in nature is an astounding event in the history of the earth and of the human race. To fail to consider its importance and its consequences would be a folly for which humanity would have to pay a terrible price.’
Let us hope that we do not pay a terrible price with a swine flu pandemic, but we must also open our minds to the possibility that the disastrous effects of widespread radioactive fallout may reach farther than the doorsteps of A-bomb survivors, downwinders and atomic workers. The hand of fallout may extend into the arena of common diseases that annually kill hundreds of thousands of people or uncommon influenzas that can wipe out millions. Perhaps Albert Schweitzer is right, and we don’t yet know the full extent of the consequences of fallout. If so, then only a 'pandemic of awareness' of the dangers of radiation in our living environments will be the greatest defense against the worst ills of humanity that we have yet to face.
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