"Around here [the National Academy of Sciences], Bross is known as brilliant and extremely dangerous."
- Devra Davis, 1993, Scholar in Residence, National Academy of Sciences -
Brilliant and Extremely Dangerous
According to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the verdict is still out about whether Agent Orange is a likely cause of many birth defects in Vietnamese people. (1) Most contentious is whether exposure of fathers’ sperm cells, prior to conception, can produce birth defects in their children. This is so despite the photographs of badly deformed Vietnamese children that appear on this and other sites, and studies conducted by Vietnamese physicians that strongly suggest a link between dioxin exposure of mothers or fathers whose children were born with a variety of serious deformities. (2,3)
Who are we to believe—a few Vietnamese physicians or the consensus of prestigious scientific committees? I want to argue that right now the benefit of the doubt should go to the physicians, given what I would suggest is the dismal record of the U.S. Government and the NAS in investigating so-called “genetic effects” of both radioactive and non-radioactive chemicals.
Although we Americans were never taught about it, the central public health question of the 20th century was: Do chemical and radiological pollutants damage the genes of human beings? First posed by the Nobel laureate in medicine in 1946, Hermann Muller, (4) that question was supposed to be resolved by the horrible human radiation experiment that was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Muller insisted that bomb radiation would definitely induce mutations in the genetic material of sperm of Japanese men and eggs of Japanese women. However, he doubted that sufficient numbers of spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and birth defects would be found in children of A-bomb survivors to prove the mutations had occurred. (5) U.S. Government geneticists were apparently well aware of the statistical problems of proving genetic damage had occurred in a largescale prospective study.
Science historian John Beatty has documented that, due to the improbability of detecting genetic damage in the first generation following the atomic explosion, the actual purpose of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) genetics study was not principally scientific but diplomatic: to reassure the Japanese that bomb radiation had not damaged their genes, so that they would be more likely to side with the United States during the Cold War. (6)
Until 1981, the ABCC project hummed along, occasionally producing a brief report with the expected negative findings, but without actually publishing the data, which was held by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The ABCC geneticists showed a 5 X 5 table in Science magazine with numbers of stillbirths and other defects found in offspring of parents exposed to high radiation doses in Hiroshima and Nagasaki compared to numbers from parents who had experienced lower doses, farther and farther from the ground zero points. The authors wrote that: "In no instance is there a statistically significant effect of parental exposure; but for all indicators the observed effect is in the direction suggested by the hypothesis that genetic damage resulted from the exposure." (7)
Finally revealing the actual data almost backfired on the U.S. atomic energy authority: an exceptionally experienced biostatistician named Irwin D. J. Bross simply collapsed the 5 X 5 table into a 3 X 3 table, grouping the closest radiation exposure levels together, and immediately saw, for the first time, the genetic damage from low-dose radiation that Muller had predicted would eventually occur: there was indeed a statistically significant excess of “reproductive wastage” in people exposed to lower doses of radiation from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (8)
Yet Bross' re-analysis was not published until 1983, in the journal Health Physics. This was apparently to give his critics at the weapons labs time to attempt to debunk his arguments (which they tried to do in official presentations prior to publication of his letter). (9) This and other reports by Bross' group at Roswell Park Memorial Institute (RPMI) in Buffalo about genetic damage, leukemia and heart disease from X-radiation explains why the NAS Scholar in Residence told me in person at her office 10 years later that “around here, he [Bross] is known as 'brilliant and extremely dangerous.'” (Davis, D.L., personal communication, 1993).
I knew Irwin well by that time, having first met him in 1981, on the heels of his ouster from the directorship of biostatistics at RPMI for providing formal statistical proof of genetic damage at Love Canal. (10) Although by the late 20th century the multigenerational effects of many toxic chemicals were obvious, documenting those effects usually led to funding cut offs and offers of enhanced early retirement for the scientists involved. Perhaps the only remaining government scientist still trying to bring the gene-damaging effects of radiation and chemical pollution to light is David M. DeMarini of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He contends that chemicals in both cigarette smoke and polluted air are very likely damaging to human eggs and sperm. (11)
Although we well-educated Americans still believe that spontaneous abortions that occur during the first trimester of pregnancy are either accidents or “acts of God,” with Bross, DeMarini argues that many of the 50-80% of miscarriages thought due to sporadic chromosomal mutation might actually be due to exposure of human germ cells to environmental pollutants. For that reason, Bross had submitted a half dozen essays to the New York Times and other media, attempting to warn the American public about what he termed “cumulative genetic degradation” due to chemical and radiological pollution. (12)
Much as we may wish to see the horrific images of badly deformed Vietnamese children as an attempt of an impoverished nation to extract sympathy from rich industrialized nations, our future may look more like this than we would like to think. Irwin Bross had predicted that asthma and unusual childhood allergies would rise throughout the 20th and 21st centuries in industrialized nations, as they have, and were in reality “indicator diseases” for worsening degradation of the humane genome. (13)
Should it come as a surprise that the much-vaunted “big science” project known as the “Human Genome Project” was completely controlled by the U.S. Department of Energy for many years, and now is half so controlled? (14) The very agency that built bombs during the Cold War now has responsibility for our most precious biological resource: our genetic material. Does that make sense?
It is time for a serious attempt to analyze the link between environmental pollution and human genetic damage, conducted by experienced epidemiologists whose funding does not depend on the diplomatic impact of their findings, but on the quality of the work, both here and in Vietnam.
1. Schecter, a. & Constable, J. D. Commentary: Agent Orange and birth defects in Vietnam. Int. J. Epidemiol.35, 1230–1232 (2006).
2. Ngo, A. D., Taylor, R. & Roberts, C. L. Paternal exposure to Agent Orange and spina bifida: a meta-analysis. Eur. J. Epidemiol.25, 37–44 (2009).
3. Ngo, A. D., Taylor, R., Roberts, C. L. & Nguyen, T. V. Association between Agent Orange and birth defects: systematic review and meta-analysis. Int. J. Epidemiol.35, 1220–30 (2006).
4. MULLER, H. J. Our load of mutations. Am. J. Hum. Genet.2, 111–76 (1950).
5. Carlson, E. J. Genes, radiation and society: the life and work of H.J. Muller. (Cornell University Press, 1981).
6. Beatty, J. in Genetics in the atomic age: the atomic bomb casualty commission, 1947-1956 The Expansion of American Biology (ed. Benson, S., Malenschein, J., and Rainger, R.) 284–319 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991).
7. Schull, W. J., Otake, M. & Neel, J. V. Genetic effects of the atomic bombs: a reappraisal. Science213, 1220–7 (1981).
8. Bross, I. D. Regarding ‘Genetic effects of the Atomic Bombs: a reappraisal’ by Schull, et al. Health Phys.44, 283–5 (1983).
9. Hamilton, L.D., B. N. L. Misuse of statistics in the interpretation of data on low-level radiation. in Seventh symposium on statistics and the environment (1982).
10. Bross, I. D. J. Muddying the water at Niagara. New Sci. 728–29 (1980).
11. Demarini, D. M. Declaring the existence of human germ-cell mutagens. Environ. Mol. Mutagen.53, 166–72 (2012).
12. Bross, I. D. & Natarajan, N. Cumulative genetic damage in children exposed to preconception and intrauterine radiation. Invest. Radiol.15, 52–64.
13. Bross, I. D. J. Scientific Strategies to Save Your Life: A Statistical Approach to Primary Prevention. (Marcel Dekker Incorporated, 1981). at <https://books.google.com/books/about/Scientific_Strategies_to_Save_Your_Life.html?id=eekgAQAAIAAJ&pgis=1>
14. Beatty, J. in Controlling Our Destinies: Historical, Philosophical, Ethical, and Theological Perspectives on the Human Genome Project (ed. Sloan, P. R.) 131–153 (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).