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Utahn blasts cover-up over '50s fallout

A University of Utah researcher told the Senate Wednesday that federal agencies for years covered up, tried to discredit and failed to follow up on evidence that atomic test fallout could cause thyroid cancer.

And Dr. Joseph L. Lyon said such activity is continuing - and asked a Senate appropriations com-mittee to remove responsibility for all such fallout-related research from the National Cancer Institute because of it.That news infuriated several sympathetic senators - including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, whose brother just died from thyroid cancer. An National Cancer Institute study released in August showed for the first time that the Iowa county where he lived had been a high fallout area.

Also infuriated was Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. - chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees such research - who vowed lengthier probes into Lyon's allegations.

Specter also vowed to seek a last-minute addition to 1998 ap-propriations bills for $1.9 million to finally continue U. thyroid studies by Lyon and others that federal bureaucrats suspended seven years ago.

All that came during hearings on the 14-year National Cancer Institute study on nationwide doses of radioactive iodine-131 that resulted from atomic bomb tests in the 1950s.

Partial findings were released in August under pressure by the media. The study showed that virtually all Americans alive in the '50s were exposed to some fallout - and up to 75,000 could develop thyroid cancer from it in their lifetime.

The National Cancer Institute finally released all 15,000 pages of the study on Wednesday on the Internet at (http://www.nci.nih.gov).

As he had told the Deseret News previously, Lyon said delays in releasing such information - and then what he says were false spins on it afterward - were part of decades of twists and cover-ups about fallout's relationship to thyroid cancer.

For example, when data was released in August, National Cancer Institute administrator Bruce Wach-holz was quick to stress that no one has yet proved that iodine-131 from fallout causes thyroid cancer. He said a study by Lyon and others on it was "inconclusive."

"The use of the term `inconclusive' to describe our thyroid study is disingenuous," Lyon said Wednesday about research that identified exposure rates for specific people in Utah and tracked them to see if thyroid problems resulted.

"We found a three-fold increased risk between childhood exposure to radioactive iodine and subsequent thyroid neoplasms (both benign and cancerous tumors) with a clear dose relationship," Lyon said.

Lyon said the only problem was that a small number of actual cancers had been found. But his team proposed to remedy that in 1988 with another five years of follow-up as people in the study reached the age when thyroid cancer was most likely. He said that could have proven the link to iodine-131 exposure.

He said such a study was originally approved. Then someone - he was told it was Wachholz - intervened to stop it. He said the project was bounced among several federal agencies but never funded - which he says follows a long pattern of trying to bury such information.

National Cancer Institute director Richard Klausner said he is interested in funding such research now because of findings by the 14-year study.

But Lyon said he would not want to pursue it if the institute is in charge because of its history on the subject. He asked senators to consider giving it to an agency such as the Centers for Disease Control.

Among other examples of abuses, Lyon said the federal government buried and did not publish an early study of its own on fallout links to leukemia (which he said U. of U. researchers later unknowingly replicated).

He said it also changed fallout data on which some of his studies were based in ways that made his findings inconclusive - and said changes came because of unexplained "classified information."

And before some of his studies were formally released, he said government officials leaked findings to the press and said they were "inconclusive." He said he was unable to counter such claims for days because of embargoes on his work and comments on it until it was published.

Meanwhile, he said the government performed what essentially were bogus studies to try to calm fears about fallout. One that found no link to thyroid problems failed to look at how much cow's milk people drank - which is the main way that radioactive iodine is ingested by humans.

"It is comparable to conducting a study of lung cancer without asking about cigarette smoking," Lyon said.

Lyon also complained - as did several watchdog groups - that the National Cancer Institute could have released its latest findings years earlier in preliminary form to allow health screenings to save lives. But it held it for years as the study was checked and edited.

National Cancer Institute director Klausner even conceded to the committee, "I believe in this case that a more clear, more rapid and more aggressive plan for disseminating the results to the public was called for."

Lyon concluded, "The responsible federal agencies have consistently responded to the public's concern with evasion, deceit and cover-up garbed in the cloak of scientific objectivity . . . trying to suppress or stop any scientific study that might confirm the public's fears."

Harkin said he will seek more answers - in part because of his brother's own death from thyroid cancer. He was also upset at reports Tuesday that the federal government warned the entire photo-graphic industry about expected fallout in the 1950s to prevent fogging undeveloped film, but no one else.

"Where were the warnings to parents of children in these areas?" he asked. "The government protected rolls of film, but not the lives of people. Something is wrong with this picture."