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Radiation on Southern India Coast

May 11, 1999

AZEEKKAL, India (AP) _ More than 100,000 poor villagers are living in a small coastal region of southern India that is unusually rich in naturally occurring radioactive materials.

The result is a constant bombardment that bathes them with yearly radiation doses up to 30 times higher than most people on the planet experience, scientists say.

Most of the residents of the 77-square-mile stretch are only vaguely aware of the situation. They go through their days eking out livings oblivious to a war of words and statistics between environmentalists who say the radiation is killing them and government scientists who argue there is no reason to fear.

The argument is heating up over a nine-year government-financed study to be made public later this year that comes to the unlikely conclusion the area’s inhabitants have become immune to the radiation and may even be developing immunity to other diseases as well.

Several international experts expressed skepticism about those conclusions.

``I doubt very much that immunity to radiation damage occurs in humans, and my experience tells me `watch out’ with respect to government-funded research,″ said one, John W. Gofman, professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

``Next they will tell us about extraterrestrials,″ Gofman told The Associated Press via e-mail.

The affected area, in Kerala state, is one of India’s most popular beaches for foreign tourists, who are unaware of the questions about the ``black sands of Kerala.″ Middle-class Indians from other parts of the country avoid the region because of frequent news stories about the radiation.

``I know there are some sort of rays here,″ said Pushpasundar Sukesan, a 63-year-old fisherman in Azeekkal, a village in the radiation zone 1,350 miles south of New Delhi. ``We feel some kind of attraction when we sleep on the sand. We feel weak.″

Other villagers say they get the same feeling when they sleep on the sandy beaches or the mud-thatched floors of their huts.

Scientists involved in the survey say the background radiation gives residents an annual dose of radiation 5 to 30 times higher than normally recorded elsewhere on Earth. That is equivalent to the radiation from 17 to 100 chest X-rays, according to the Radiation Effects Research Organization in Hiroshima, Japan.

The glistening black sand on the beaches overlooking the roaring Arabian Sea contains radioactive materials such as thorium, uranium and monazite. India is trying to use the area’s abundant deposits of thorium to replace the uranium that powers its nuclear power reactors.

There are similar radiation zones in southern China, Iran and Brazil, but the Kerala coast is believed to be the only high radioactivity region with a high population density. There are about 5,200 per square mile here.

Hundreds of scientists and doctors divided the Kerala coast into square mile grids and began studying the area in 1990. They checked the 100,000 people in the zone plus 300,000 in areas where there is no radiation and studied nearly 36,000 children for congenital disorders. They also examined soil, air and water.

Doctors conduct regular medical examinations of the area’s residents and keep elaborate records of past medical histories of each individual to keep track of health changes.

Now, they say they are looking at groundbreaking findings.

``The cancer incidence in the region is the same as in the whole state,″ M. Krishnan Nair, director of the government’s Regional Cancer Center in the provincial capital, Trivandrum, said in an interview. ``Since 1990, 2,500 people have been diagnosed with cancer, and there are 300 new cases every year.″

Finding a normal incidence of cancer led the researchers to conclude that ``there seems to be some sort of immunity, and the radiation here could be producing certain changes in the system which could make them more resistant to diseases,″ Nair said.

David A. Savitz, chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, said the study is likely to excite supporters of a theory that prolonged exposure to very low levels of radiation may stimulate the human body to be more resistant.

But Savitz stressed it is difficult to draw a clear link between background radiation and cancer incidence, since other environmental or lifestyle factors could be at work.

At the same time, he said, experts also have been unable to link background radiation to health problems.

Jim Plambeck of the University of Alberta, Canada, is among the experts who are doubtful about the preliminary findings of the government study. He said it can be very difficult to interpret data on the incidence of disease.

David Hunter of the Harvard School of Public Health added, ``I am not aware of any precedent for immunity from the health effects of radiation.″

Environmental activists, meanwhile, contend the radioactive minerals have, in fact, led to a spurt in cancer cases in the region. Government experts and some local aid groups question the accuracy of those studies, arguing the figures have been exaggerated.

``Blood cancer, Down syndrome, epilepsy and genetic disorders are common in this area, but the link with radiation is not yet established,″ said P. Pradeep, an environmental activist who formerly worked with the Bhabha Atomic Research Center, the hub of atomic energy research in India which financed the Kerala study.

Still, Pradeep thinks, residents ought to be moved out of the area, but they won’t go. ``People here have more visible problems, like their poverty. This is an invisible problem,″ he said.

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