Potischman and Co-Workers Explained:

Methods and Findings on Diet and Lifestyle Used to Support Estimation of Radiation Doses from Radioactive Fallout from the Trinity Nuclear Test.

Reference: Potischman, N., Salazar, S. I., Scott, M. A., Naranjo, M., Haozous, E., Bouville, A., & Simon, S. L. (2020). Methods and Findings on Diet and Lifestyle Used to Support Estimation of Radiation Doses from Radioactive Fallout from the Trinity Nuclear Test. Health Physics119(4), 390–399. https://doi.org/10.1097/HP.0000000000001303


What were the research questions?

The researchers sought to understand the typical diet in the 1940s, because consumption of fallout-contaminated food and water is the main way people are exposed internally to fallout radiation. This information is important for additional studies to make estimates of the range of radiation doses that residents of New Mexico may have received as a result of the Trinity test.

How was the scientific problem approached?

The researchers first conducted a small pilot study with people who had lived in New Mexico during the 1940s or 1950s, in order to help design a data collection method. The final study involved 13 focus groups and 11 individual interviews with people over 70 years of age who had lived in New Mexico at the time of the test. The focus groups included discussions with people of the four major ethnic groups in New Mexico. 

What did the research involve?

Information from these discussions allowed the researchers to estimate how much and how frequently people of each ethnicity and age typically ate specific foods. The researchers also gained information about the construction materials of homes, the practice of breastfeeding infants and the amount of time people spent outdoors.

What did they find?

Fresh milk can be a major source of iodine-131 that results from cows consuming grass contaminated with radioactive fallout. When consumed, the radioactive iodine is concentrated in the thyroid gland. The researchers found that the rate of milk consumption was lowest among people living in mountainous regions and highest among children aged 11-15 years who were living in rural plains. Meat, which transfers much less radioactivity, was not commonly eaten and those who did eat it, consumed relatively small amounts. Most drinking and cooking water came from wells that were covered meaning they were protected from contamination. Many homes were made from adobe which provided more protection from radiation than did wooden structures.

How did the researchers interpret their basic results?

The researchers state their dietary data for the mid-1940s represents the best available data on diet in New Mexico for the purposes of radiation dose assessment. They highlight that this information is not intended to represent specific individuals, but typical behaviours of each ethnic and age group.

Who did this research?

The study was done by researchers from the US National Cancer Institute in collaboration with teams from the US National Institutes of Health, New Mexico State University, Honor Our Pueblo Existence and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. The research was funded by the US National Cancer Institute and the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.


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Supporting Resources

Key Messages

Diet and lifestyle information provides useful information on possible ways people are exposed internally to radiation.

Individual and group discussions generate rich, verifiable information recollected over decades.

Diet and lifestyle information generated was applied for radiation dose assessment.


Links to the research paper

This is a peer-reviewed study meaning that other scientists have reviewed this work before the authors published it in the journal Health Physics in 2020.