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The Government’s Quiet War on Scientists Who Know Too Much

If Dr. Thomas Mancuso is right, thousands will die from ‘safe’ radiation

The Government's Quiet War on Scientists Who Know Too Much

War on Science.

VICTOR HABBICK VISIONS/Getty

The transformation of Dr. Thomas Mancuso began in the lonesome archives of research science where he has spent most of his life. He was a respected authority in his field but a man free of most pretensions, a recluse by nature, unassuming in appearance — small, almost frail, with a thin face bobbing above a sweater and tie of some faded fashion.

Then, suddenly, he was at war with the U.S. government. He became known as a dissident scientist and found himself the target of a campaign of suppression.

The new Mancuso was created by the government he once served. In 1964 the government commissioned him to measure how safe nuclear plants are for the people who work in them. It was the first study of its kind and was therefore invested with special significance. His initial findings were innocuous. But eighteen months ago he and two associates turned up alarming evidence that low levels of radiation, previously thought to be safe, can actually be quite deadly.

The implications extend far beyond the fate of nuclear workers. If Mancuso is right, it means that thousands of us will die from radiation we are receiving. It means that current government standards on radiation are meaningless, that having repeated chest X-rays or living next to a nuclear plant can be extremely dangerous, and that our government has sponsored a cruel illusion for the past three decades.

In another society the government might have exiled Mancuso to a work camp, seized his belongings, reduced him to a nonperson. Here the process was kinder. Our government simply cut off his funds, shoved him into premature retirement and tried to take possession of his study.

Mancuso’s findings come at a time when there is a proliferation of new and scary information about the poisonous nature of our changing environment. In that context it lacks the impact it might once have had. But what Mancuso has produced is the first study on the peaceful use of radiation that relies on what has already happened, rather than on what might occur in the future. The numbers on Mancuso’s charts and graphs are real people who died after being exposed to doses of radiation the government claims are perfectly safe.

Since World War II the government has sanctioned, subsidized and generally overindulged all forms of nuclear power. If radiation victims or their surviving relatives now start to file suits, the government might be obliged to pay millions, perhaps billions, in compensation.

The government’s response is that Mancuso lacks proof; it sees no need for panicky action. The government’s case, however, would be more persuasive if its record were more open-minded. Mancuso’s predicament, and his study, are particularly disturbing because he is only one of several scientists the government has tried to squelch for challenging its view of nuclear safety. And there is, in that press for unanimity, the dark hint of coverup.

Mancuso’s office is on the fifth floor of the University of Pittsburgh’s somberly styled Public Health building. It is long and rectangular with as much maneuvering room as a closet. A metal table, a wooden desk and nearly two dozen four-drawer file cabinets line the walls, leaving just an abbreviated aisle in between. Three small brown-tone snapshots of his children in college-yearbook poses and a few black-and-white photographs of colleagues offer the only relief from the academic austerity.

Mancuso began his project here fourteen years ago under Contract E(11-1) 3428 from the Atomic Energy Commission, the federal agency that then regulated the nuclear business. Compiling the data was the work of several years. He had to trek to Tennessee, New Mexico, Washington, Missouri and several other states to track down the personnel records of nuclear workers. In all, he called information on 200,000 workers stretching over a thirty-year period from more than one million files.

The rest of the time he squirreled himself in his office, except for requisite classroom forays, usually skipping lunch as he bent over his files, centralizing and correlating numbers, always adding to the blizzard of papers that crowded into every cranny. He had to translate the lives of the workers into vital statistics — job history, amount of radiation suffered, cause of death — before he could begin to isolate the effects of radiation.

He had to proceed slowly because the information was fragmentary and he did not expect to reach any conclusions until the late Seventies. So he was surprised when Dr. Sidney Marks, then the AEC’s health-studies manager, phoned him in June 1974 with an urgent request.

“Marks was very eager that my findings be released right away,” he recalls. “He even had a press release all written that he wanted to send out.” The press release, according to Mancuso, was a carte blanche endorsement of the government’s position on radiation standards.

At this point Mancuso’s findings were still preliminary and, because he was missing some critical data, he did not consider them reliable. He explained this to Marks, he says, but the AEC wanted him to publicize his findings anyway. What had prompted the AEC’s sudden concern was a phone call from Dr. Samuel Milham, a researcher in the Washington state health department.

For the previous three years Milham had been independently sifting through the death certificates of 300,000 Washington workers. “I didn’t start out looking for the effects of radiation,” Milham says, “but it just popped out that the Hanford guys had too many cancers.”

Hanford is a government facility on the eastern edge of Washington, known to its residents as “Plutonium City.” Until the final year of World War II it was an unpeopled patch of desert. Then, almost overnight, the War Department built Hanford to make plutonium for its atom bombs, thereby creating the country’s first nuclear weapons center and introducing people-made radiation into the ecosystem for the first time.

Milham’s research had uncovered an unusually high number of cancer deaths among Hanford workers. He guessed the deaths were the result of their jobs but was unable to prove that because he did not have access to the records of their radiation exposure.

Nonetheless, Milham had notified the AEC of his findings and of his plans to publish them in a scientific journal. But the AEC quickly made clear its unhappiness with that prospect. “I didn’t want to cause a controversy,” Milham says, “and I had a lot of respect for Mancuso. So I decided to wait until he finished his study.”

Finishing, however, was apparently not what the AEC wanted of Mancuso. He says that Marks and other AEC officials pressured him to release his study immediately in case Milham changed his mind. Mancuso refused. “The AEC was very concerned about the public reaction if Milham was given any credibility,” he explains. “But I told them they couldn’t use my study to counteract Milham’s. My findings were much too premature. For all I knew, Milham was right.”

A friend with AEC connections warned him to expect retribution if he did not cooperate, Mancuso says, but he ignored the advice. He needed more time, he told the AEC, before he could deliver any sort of definitive answer.

Dissatisfied, the AEC turned elsewhere, requesting a review of Milham from Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories, a Washington research facility the AEC regularly employs. Battelle hastened back with a theory more to the government’s liking. It attributed the unnatural cancer rate to a statistical bias rather than to radiation.

In his University of Pittsburgh archive, meanwhile, Mancuso was turning into more of a maverick. After gathering more data, he began to suspect that Milham was right.

But in March 1975, he was summoned to a meeting in Germantown, Maryland, a bustling sprawl of modern brick buildings where the government’s energy experts make policy. The AEC, which had just been reincarnated as the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), gave Mancuso a terse message: he was being terminated. Contract E (11-1) 3428 was canceled as of July 1977. He was to use the remaining time to transfer his files to the government-run laboratories at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Until then the government had judged Mancuso’s abilities to be of the highest order. Educated as a physician, Mancuso had worked seventeen years as director of industrial hygiene for the state of Ohio, where he reserved a historical footnote for himself as the first to link brain tumors to industrial chemicals during a study of rubber workers.

Mancuso had also pioneered the “Social Security method,” a discovery that opened up a previously elusive dimension of research. Since cancer often requires fifteen or twenty years to develop, and since companies routinely discard personnel records after ten years, researchers had been thwarted in documenting an industrial cancer cause and effect. But Mancuso learned that the Social Security system keeps almost all payroll lists on file, and by matching these obituary data he was able to trace cancer trends in Ohio factories. That work had earned him an award in 1961 from the National Cancer Institute as one of the country’s top cancer researchers which, in turn, first brought him to the attention of the AEC.

Mancuso’s performance on Contract E (11-1) 3428 had been similarly distinguished. In the last “peer review” of Mancuso’s project the AEC had conducted before Marks’ 1974 phone call, five of the six reviewers had praise for his thoroughgoing procedures and urged the AEC to continue funding the project.

Government officials at Germantown, however, did not tell Mancuso of this review, or that the decision to remove him had been made, as internal documents later revealed, right after he balked at collaborating with the AEC press release. Instead, he says, he was told only that an unfeeling bureaucracy was at fault and he left the meeting more confused than angry.

To Mancuso the politics of the government’s decision did not matter as much as his dilemma about what to do with his study. Having invested a quarter of his adult life in the p roject, he had hoped to make it the capstone of his career, and now he was being denied that opportunity. He thought about giving up, he says, “but it just wasn’t right —I couldn’t go along with it.”

After mulling over his options, Mancuso opted to take advantage of the “grace period” before his grant officially expired. He contacted Dr. Alice Stewart, an internationally regarded epidemiologist at Birmingham University in England, and asked if she would lend her expertise to the project. Stewart — tall, white-haired, elegantly efficient in the manner of Katharine Hepburn — agreed, and in May 1976 she arrived in Pittsburgh.

With her came her associate, George Kneale, a biostatistician who took Mancuso’s data and put it through a series of computerized acrobatics. Backed against a deadline, they decided to narrow their focus to the Hanford workers. Then Stewart and Kneale helped Mancuso interpret the readouts. “I understood how important this study was,” she says, “and I was prepared to be very skeptical.” But their conclusions agreed with Milham’s initial observations.

A total of 4032 Hanford workers had died since World War II, 832 from cancer, a rate about seven percent more than expected. The computer showed that the 832 had received about twenty-five percent more radiation than their non-cancer counterparts. But even these radiation doses were well within the government’s “safe” zone.

Radiation is counted in units of energy called “rems” (roentgen equivalent man). Hospital X-rays usually emit a range of one-tenth to one rem. The government permits nuclear companies to expose their workers to five rems a year, and in ten years a worker could absorb up to fifty rems. But the 832 Hanford workers had received an average of only two rems apiece during their entire time on the job, far less than the government’s upper limit.

That fact added a radically new quality to their findings. If the same phenomenon held true for other nuclear workers, Mancuso realized, the government would have to scrap the cornerstone of its nuclear safety program. At a minimum, government standards would have to be made ten times more stringent.

For the already beleaguered nuclear power companies and the manufacturers of X-ray machines, such a revision could be devastating. If the government compelled them to eliminate radiation in the one-rem range, they could be pushed to the edge of bankruptcy.

Bolstered by Stewart and Kneale, Mancuso informed ERDA he now felt his findings were reliable enough to make public. “But they told me they didn’t want me to release anything.” By now his suspicions were on the alert. So he carefully appealed to ERDA’s sense of scientific integrity. If ERDA thought the Hanford case was an aberration, he argued, the best way to resolve the debate was to renew his grant so he could complete work on the rest of his data.

“But ERDA told me there was no way they could rescind their decision,” Mancuso says. “They wanted our report kept quiet, and they wanted us out of the project.” An awkward hiatus followed. Not until after his grant expired did he discover that ERDA had recruited a panel of scientists to criticize his study and then had secretly circulated their critiques in government and academic circles.

Mancuso felt betrayed. “I didn’t object to having my work reviewed,” he explains, “but I did object to the way it was done and the way ERDA tried to hurt my chances of getting new funding from other sources.”

As he tried to obtain copies of the critiques, Mancuso again encountered Dr. Sidney Marks, the official who had tried to pit him against Milham. Marks had written a memo complaining about Mancuso’s uncooperative nature, then had left ERDA for an associate manager’s job with Battelle Laboratories, the firm that earlier had been used to debunk Milham. Thereupon ERDA had hired Battelle to conduct an “independent” review of the Mancuso-Stewart-Kneale report, a mandate that was parceled out about the same time ERDA awarded Battelle $80 million in government business.

Mancuso wrote to Marks asking for a copy of the Battelle critique. But Marks begged off, claiming that it was not ready. Finally, after an environmental group filed a Freedom of Information request on Mancuso’s behalf, ERDA supplied copies of six critiques (though it did not include the one from Battelle).

The critiques were rooted in a thirty-year-old analysis that dates back to the only undisputed radiation epidemic: the aftermath of the atomic explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ERDA reviewers felt that they had detected a flaw in the Mancuso findings because, unlike the A-bomb survivors who later died of cancer, the Hanford workers did not have a high incidence of leukemia.

But Stewart had a ready reply. Instead of leukemia, the Hanford workers had sustained a larger proportion of myeloma, a special form of bone marrow cancer. The difference, she explained, was due to the patterns of exposure. People in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were subjected to a “quick burst,” while those at Hanford were exposed in gradual doses. “What is nonsense is that the Hanford people should be compared to the A-bomb people,” she points out. “It’s like comparing apples and oranges. From the beginning the government based all its radiation theories on the A-bomb people and now it’s reluctant to admit it might have been wrong.”

Whatever the merits of the critiques, ERDA’s behavior convinced Mancuso that his plight was the result of more than bureaucratic caprice. So he fired off a round of letters asking for answers. But the sequence of official explanations he triggered only added to a growing sense that he was being flimflammed.

Erda’s James Liverman, the assistant administrator of environment and safety, took the responsibility for firing Mancuso. “The principal reasons,” Liverman wrote in an August 1977 letter, “were deficiencies in performance under the contract.” But there was no evidence to support that explanation, and a month later he retreated from it.

In a September letter Liverman claimed his action came after his staff had notified him of Mancuso’s “imminent retirement” in summer 1974. That explanation did not hold up either. In summer 1974 Mancuso was only sixty-two years old and eight years away from the University of Pittsburgh’s mandatory retirement age.

Erda officials closed ranks behind Liverman, however, and refused to elaborate. This was a desolate time for Mancuso. His grant money had stopped in July 1977, and prospects for a new one were not encouraging even though the university had allowed him to keep his office for a year while he searched. But as he mailed out solicitations and put his files in order he began to realize that he was not the first scientist to be so victimized.

Dr. Ernest Sternglass, a professor of radiological physics, is shoe-horned into a tiny office at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, a block up the street from Mancuso. In 1969 Sternglass became one of the first U.S. scientists to warn against the dangers of low-level radiation, when he authored articles for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Esquire. According to Sternglass’ research, 400,000 young children had died in the United States as a result of fallout from nuclear weapons testing in the Fifties and Sixties.

Sternglass’ announcement came during a congressional debate over the anti-ballistic missile system (a multibillion-dollar investment that became a military white elephant) and it had a caroming effect. On Capitol Hill the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy set out to investigate, but it was more interested in Sternglass than in his findings. It found that he had taken after-hours advantage of a University of Pittsburgh computer in deciphering his data, and, for this technicality, it took Sternglass and the university to task. Shortly thereafter the National Space and Aeronautics Administration (NASA) and the National Institute of Health, under whose auspices Sternglass had pursued his research, decided to cancel his grants.

The AEC commandeered two of its top radiation experts, Drs. John Gofman and Arthur. Tamplin, to refute Sternglass’ articles. Gofman and Tamplin, then at the AEC labs in Livermore, California, soon found themselves more in accord with Sternglass than with their employer. They felt Sternglass had overestimated the number of fallout victims but they concluded that legal levels of radiation leaking from nuclear plants would inflict cancer on 32,000 people annually by the year 2000, a sum that exceeded the AEC’s estimate by an impertinent amount.

The AEC responded by stripping Tamplin of his staff and diluting his authority. Gofman, the team’s senior member, was told that the AEC intended to slash the Livermore budget by $250,000 unless the project was jettisoned. Both men felt compelled to resign.

The next victim was Dr. Irwin Bross, director of biostatistics at Roswell Park Memorial Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Bross spent nine years on a three-state survey that documented the side effects of ordinary diagnostic X-rays. He found that infants whose parents had been previously exposed to X-rays had a higher rate of genetic damage and that X-rays nearly doubled the risk of leukemia in men.

Bross’ project, like Mancuso’s, was the first empirical study of its kind and his findings were equally shocking. Working with entirely separate data, Bross had confirmed that radiation in the one-rem range could be lethal.

In May 1977, two months after Bross presented his report, the government-subsidized National Cancer Institute elected not to continue his grant.

When Bross, Sternglass and other “dissident scientists” learned that Mancuso had become one of them, they wrote letters taking up his cause. The show of support cheered Mancuso and strengthened his resolve. Under this influence, the shy, apolitical scientist had become a scrapper.

In fall 1977 a battle formed over ERDA’s ultimatum that Mancuso relinquish the files he had so fastidiously collected. It was an almost unprecedented demand and he decided not to comply. On September 14th Erda headquarters sent a “priority” teletype to its Chicago regional office with orders to retrieve the files and computer takes from Mancuso. When he objected, ERDA directed its demand to the University of Pittsburgh vice-chancellor, asking him to intervene. Again Mancuso refused to give up his work.

On November 12th ERDA renewed its quest, dispatching a summons directly to Mancuso in unmistakably stern language. Mancuso held firm, but not without some trepidation. “I don’t know how to handle people like this,” he explains. “They come at you with official documents and lots of legal talk and try to scare you. And believe me, I get scared.”

Once again he was face-to-face with the underlying tenets of his life, the code by which science is held sacred. It had been easy to believe in the pursuit of scientific truth when he was still an anonymous researcher working on charts and graphs. But the previous two years had put him to a rare test — confronting him with having to live up to his beliefs — and he had found it an unrelenting ordeal.

“A researcher has to be able to do his job without interference from the government — that’s what I’ve always believed and that’s what I still believe.” His voice fills with a rising conviction. “A researcher must be independent if he’s going to be honest about what he finds.”

Turning his files over to ERDA’s Oak Ridge labs, he decided, would mean giving up the project’s independence. “Once Oak Ridge has all the data in its possession the government can say whatever it wants and I won’t be able to disagree because I won’t have any data to back me up,” he explains. “Frankly, I think we’re on the verge of proving the dangers of low-level radiation beyond a shadow of a doubt, and that’s what they don’t want to happen.”

Mancuso’s concern was shared by Dr. Karl Morgan, perhaps the most respected man in the field of nuclear health. Morgan helped create the health-physics department at Oak Ridge and served as its director for twenty-eight years. But when he learned of ERDA’s campaign against Mancuso, he sent a stinging letter to James Schlesinger, the White House energy czar. “One can only suppose that the new Oak Ridge team must get the right answer,” he wrote, “i.e., prove that there is no radiation risk in Hanford workers, if it cares to have a continuation of funding.”

Morgan was a longtime booster of nuclear power and he still believes it has a virtuous side. But he had his own disillusioning encounter in 1971 while he was still at Oak Ridge. He was scheduled to speak at a nuclear symposium in Nuremberg, Germany, and had drafted a speech that included references to safety defects in the plutonium fast-breeder reactor, a vanguard project the AEC was then championing. When Oak Ridge found out about the speech, however, it ordered the West Germans to destroy the 200 copies already printed and forced him to read a censored version.

Sternglass, Gofman, Tamplin, Bross and similarly buffeted scientists belong to an ad hoc fraternity of “lone voices” trying to keep each other from being silenced. But Morgan stands apart as a voice that still must be reckoned with in official Washington. When he rallied to Mancuso’s fight, the situation finally began to brighten. Just before Christmas 1977 the Department of Energy (DOE), which had incorporated ERDA in another reshuffling of the Washington alphabet, agreed to investigate the government’s conduct in the case. And a congressional subcommittee promised to hold hearings, thanks in large part to the lobbying effort of Bob Alvarez, a nuclear expert for the Washington-based Environmental Policy Center.

Alvarez also helped Mancuso find a Washington lawyer to represent him against the government and volunteered to take charge of finding no-strings-attached money so the project can be resumed. “The suppression of scientists is something that supposedly only happens in countries like the Soviet Union,” Alvarez says. “No one seems to realize that it’s happening right here.”

In mid-February the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment took two days of testimony on the case. Mancuso received an unexpected endorsement from Dr. Edward Radford. chairman of a prestigious National Academy of Sciences group, who supported his conclusion that the government’s radiation limits are ten times too high and are “long overdue for change.” And, after listening to ERDA’s vacuous excuses for terminating Mancuso, the subcommittee chairman, Congressman Paul Rogers, pronounced himself outraged and vowed to pursue the investigation.

Even as Mancuso was winning this vindication, however, his struggles to hang on to his data continued. Shortly before the hearings he sat in his crammed quarters, surrounded by the papers that make up his life. Most of the campus was snowbound, but he had been at his desk since early morning, having walked the eleven wintry blocks from home to office with accustomed determination. He was scribbling furiously on a yellow legal pad, preparing a chronology of the past three and a half years for government investigators.

He paused as a secretary interrupted with his mail. Leafing through the letters he stopped at one from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It was another request for his files. “Damn it,” he pronounced each word to make sure his exasperation was understood, then flung the letter down like some contaminated object. “This really burns me up. They just keep at you and at you. They never let up.”

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