How the Photography Industry Exposed the Atomic Bomb
By Berlyn Brixner / Los Alamos National Laboratory [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but it's real life...
Back in the late 1940s, Kodak customers began to lodge complaints that the film they purchased was bad.
Because the radiosensitive film was coming out completely foggy.
Little did Kodak customers know at the time, but the foggy film was a direct result of fallout from the U.S. government's atomic bomb tests - the Trinity Test in particular - in New Mexico in 1945.
Map of Trinity Test site. By United States Army (Jones, Manhattan: The Army and the Bomb, p. 479) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Amazingly, once Kodak began to investigate the problem, they discovered that the fallout from the Trinity Test had reached at least as far east as Indiana.
This revelation came to light after Kodak found that the corn husks they used to pack their products (which were grown in Indiana) tested positive for iodine-131 - a radioactive isotope.
In other words, Kodak had stumbled upon something that was not known to the public - fallout from the first atmospheric nuclear tests was causing radioactive contamination across the U.S.
The problem is, they kept this information to themselves, perhaps of their own volition, or perhaps due to government pressure to do so.
Mushroom cloud over Trinity Test site. By United States Department of Energy (Trinity & Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The story doesn't end there, though.
We've all no doubt seen the videos of atomic testing in the Pacific, but testing also occurred in the continental United States, particularly in the 1950s in Nevada.
In early 1951, the government detonated an atomic bomb at Nevada's National Security Site. A few days later in Rochester, New York, Kodak picked up unusually high radiation levels that were 25 times above the norm.
Given the severity of the radiation and the sheer distance from the atomic test - some 1,600 miles - Kodak couldn't keep quiet this time.
So, Kodak took action.
Location of the Trinity Test, indicated by the red arrow. By Astronaut Photography of Earth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It filed a complaint with the National Association of Photographic Manufacturers. That action, in turn, led the NAPM to contact the Atomic Energy Commision.
In their correspondence with the AEC, NAPM noted that Kodak had detected 10,000 counts per minute of radiation in Rochester, which usually recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 counts per minute.
In response, the AEC issued a rather tepid statement, saying, in part, that the reports revealed no indication that such levels of radiation caused harm to humans.
However, Kodak also contacted the AEC directly, and though they were initially given the cold shoulder, they threatened to sue.
That got the attention of the AEC, who agreed to give Kodak - and the rest of the photography industry - access to details about the nuclear testing program, including information about the predicted fallout that was not publicly available at the time.
But, it was too little, too late.
Crater left by Trinity Test. By Trinity_crater.jpg: Federal government of the United States derivative work: Bomazi (Trinity_crater.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Not only did the AEC know its atomic tests were distributing radioactive fallout all over the country, but they were also fully aware that the testing could cause long-term health issues for people and animals.
Iodine-131, in particular, could settle on the ground, enter the food supply, and then be consumed by animals and humans alike.
An overabundance of iodine is linked to a higher incidence of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer in children. Of course, unsurprisingly, during this time period, thousands upon thousands of kids developed thyroid cancer.
The problem was so widespread that the National Cancer Institute still helps people identify if they might have been exposed to iodine-131.
The other problem is that this type of cancer is highly preventable with standard iodine supplements. But because the public had no idea of the extent of the radioactive fallout, they couldn't protect themselves from it.
Trinity Atomic Test video by AtomCentral
The real kicker is that the government knew as early as 1953 that the radioactive fallout could enter the food supply and harm humans. Yet, atomic testing continued without any public warnings for about another decade.
During that same time when the public was kept in the dark, Kodak and other photography companies were getting detailed information about atomic testing so they could be sure to source materials they needed to produce their products from uncontaminated regions of the U.S.
So, though Kodak "exposed" the problem of nuclear testing, it was either forbidden from exposing it to the general public or simply used its inside information to avoid the cloudy film problem that tipped them off to the radiation in the first place.
Either way, it's a sad chapter in American history and one that continues to negatively impact people that grew up during that time period.
This story originally appeared on Imaging Resource.