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Health Professional's Role in Reducing Nuclear Dangers

Posted by Ira Helfand, MD on March 18, 2010

As the Senate considers the CTBT and the new START treaties this year, it is important to realize the powerful role that PSR and health professionals can play in moving the public to support steps to reduce the nuclear danger.

Soon after its founding in 1961, PSR published an historic collection of articles in a special issue of the New England Journal of Medicine that laid out with brutal clarity the terrifying medical consequences of a nuclear war.  The articles had a huge impact on public understanding. They showed clearly that there can never be an adequate medical response to nuclear war, which must be understood as an epidemic for which there is no treatment and which must, therefore, be prevented. 

In this same period PSR and other health professionals played a key role in mobilizing support for the Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibited atmospheric testing.  Gathering deciduous teeth from their pediatric patients, they were able to show that children were literally incorporating radioactive fallout, particularly strontium 90, into their bodies where these isotopes could radiate their tissues on an ongoing basis causing cancer and other health problems. This message, delivered, not by politicians or defense experts, but by doctors, resonated powerfully with people's desire to protect their children's health, and helped to assure the rapid ratification of the Treaty.

When PSR was re-founded in the late 1970's it again asserted the need to view nuclear war as, first and foremost, a public health issue.  In a series of historic symposia in cities across the country, PSR speakers re-introduced America to the data on the medical consequences of nuclear war. PSR members amplified this message in hundreds of Grand Rounds presentations, talks to church and civic groups, letters to the editor and op-ed pieces.  Our medical message was central to building the huge anti-nuclear movement which formed in the early 1980's challenging the dangerous escalation of the nuclear arms race then under way.  

This campaign of public education culminated in meetings with President Reagan and Chairman Gorbachev.  In his memoirs Gorbachev specifically credits PSR's global federation, the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, with changing his thinking about nuclear war and inspiring the series of initiatives that he launched which led to the end of nuclear testing by the superpowers and the reversal of the nuclear arms race.
For this work IPPNW and PSR were awarded the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

Unfortunately, when the Cold War ended a few years later, the nuclear arsenals which had been built up did not go away.  It was only public understanding of the danger they posed that faded.  But PSR continued to speak about the ongoing threat of nuclear war.  In the late 1990's we helped to kindle a new appreciation of the continuing danger of accidental nuclear war with an examination of the medical consequences of such a conflict published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Soon after 9/11 we were asked to prepare an assessment for the British Medical Journal of the medical consequences of a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons. 

Today, the post-Cold War delusion that the nuclear threat had ended is giving way to a growing understanding of the great danger these weapons still pose.   The rise of international terrorist organizations, and the spread of nuclear weapons to India, Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly, in the near future, to Iran have focused attention on these aspects of the nuclear danger, even if the far greater danger posed by the US and Russian arsenals is still inadequately appreciated.  

In this setting, PSR can make a major contribution to building support for concrete steps to lessen the nuclear danger.  In the last few years climate scientists have confirmed  that  catastrophic global climate disruption  will follow a nuclear war.  They have shown that it will last longer than originally thought when Nuclear Winter was first described in the 1980's and that even a limited, regional nuclear war will have major climate effects worldwide.

PSR has examined the medical consequences of these climate changes and projected that even a limited nuclear war involving less than 1% of the current arsenals might trigger a global famine that could kill one billion people.  

This message has major implications for nuclear weapons policy.  It underlines the need to prevent nuclear proliferation and is a powerful argument for the ratification of the CTBT, one of the most important tools we have to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.  This data also demonstrates the existential danger to humanity posed by the existing arsenals of the current nuclear weapons states.  It provides powerful support for the need to sign and ratify a new START treaty that cuts US and Russian arsenals, and to move immediately to negotiations for further deeper reductions in their arsenals which is an essential step on the road to multilateral negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that will eliminate these weapons completely.

PSR has a major responsibility to educate both the public at large and current decision makers about the urgent need to establish these treaties.  We are not the experts on exactly how to conduct these negotiations.  We are the experts on what will happen if they fail.


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