Interview with Tony Brooks
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Robert Franklin: My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history interview with Tony Brooks on February 8th, 2017. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Tony about his experiences working at the Hanford Site and his lifetime in the health physics profession. And for the record, can you state and spell your full name for us?
Tony Brooks: Antone Leavitt Brooks. A-N-T-O-N-E L-E-A-V-I-T-T B-R-O-O-K-S.
Franklin: Great. And so let’s start at the beginning. Where and when—where were you born and when?
Brooks: I was born in Saint George, Utah, which is the fallout capital of the world.
Franklin: Is that—that’s southern?
Brooks: Southern. Right as you’re going towards Las Vegas, it’s the last city in Utah before you leave, head out across the Nevada Desert.
Franklin: And why is it the fallout capital of the world?
Brooks: Because we shot off 103 atomic weapons aboveground at the Nevada Test Site. Normally, the weapons would be shot so that the fallout would go north across the Nevada, then turn and come east across Utah. There were a couple of shots that didn’t do that, that came right straight east to Saint George. And so we had some of the highest fallout levels recorded. When we were little kids, we’d be out playing basketball, and they’d say, hey, fallout cloud’s coming over, go in the house. Come on, you know? We’re playing ball here. [LAUGHTER] Or I’m up to bat next, I’m not going in the house.
Franklin: So you had an early connection, then with—
Franklin: With radiation and atomic testing and atomic production.
Brooks: Right, right, right, right.
Franklin: So how did you get involved in radiation testing and health physics?
Brooks: Well, see, what I did then, when I went to University of Utah, got a bachelor’s degree there and then I got a master’s degree. And a guy named Robert Pendleton had just gotten a grant from the old Atomic Energy Commission to study the movement of fallout through the environment and into people. I did my master’s degree then following fallout. We set up a series of dairy farm stations. Each week we’d go and we’d sample the milk, we’d sample the grass, we’d sample the people, and count and watch the fallout move through the ecosystem into people. And so that was my master’s degree.
Franklin: And what year was that?
Brooks: In ’62.
Franklin: ’62, okay. And then that—
Brooks: They shot the last of the aboveground tests then. The atomic bomb ban—testing ban came in about then. But one of the last shots they shot was called Sedan. And Sedan was designed to see how big of a hole you could make with a nuclear weapon. So they buried it out in the desert, dug a serious hole with it. And the fallout came right over up across Salt Lake City.
Brooks: And so I was there, working on my master’s degree at that time. So we got a good dose of fallout from that also.
Franklin: Wow. And does that kind of—I know that there were also those pathway-into-human experiments here at Hanford, as well. Does that kind of—does that mirror—is that around the same time?
Brooks: Yes, yes, yeah.
Brooks: They used to have the old Hanford Symposiums up here, and we’d always come up and participate in those.
Franklin: Oh really?
Brooks: And so we knew the people here; they knew us. We were doing the same kind of work. In fact, the guy who was one of the big ones here, a guy named Leo Bustad and Roger McClellan, okay?
Franklin: Yeah, we’ve interviewed Roger before.
Brooks: Well, Roger was my boss.
Brooks: So when I got my master’s degree, I went on to Cornell University. It was everywhere, okay? Fallout was everywhere. It was in everything, it was on everything. My concern, then, was, are there health effects? Are there health effects? Are we causing damage? Are we all going to die of cancer? Okay?
Brooks: That was a big concern. And at that time, we didn’t have a whole lot of data on internally deposited radioactive material. So I went to Cornell University and got my PhD there, studying chromosome damage. The chromosome is the most sensitive indicator of radiation-induced damage that we had at that time. You could look down the microscope and see the breaks and the rearrangements caused by the radiation. So that’s what I did my PhD. Then Roger McClellan hired me to go to the Lovelace Foundation, where he was the new director. I was one of the first two people he hired at Lovelace. So that’s how Roger and I got together.
Franklin: Right, right. And what did you do at Lovelace?
Brooks: Well, Lovelace—see, I wanted to continue my studies on internally deposited radioactive material, and that’s what they did. They had animals inhale, inject, ingest all kinds of radioactive material. So what I did was study the chromosome genetic damage as well as cancer induced in those animals.
Franklin: Does that also kind of mirror—that mirrors some of the testing done at Hanford Labs and PNNL on—
Brooks: Oh, sure, oh, sure, oh, sure.
Franklin: --animal. First with the pigs and beagles—
Brooks: See, they had a big dog program here, we had a big dog program at Lovelace. They had one at Utah, they had one at Argonne, they had one at—so they had all these programs that were well-coordinated, studying effects of radiation on animals.
Franklin: So, were you all studying different areas of that—
Franklin: --or kind of all studying the same, trying to work towards the cracking of the—
Brooks: Each one—each laboratory had kind of an assignment. University of Utah, they inject—they started first. They injected the animals with radioactive material. Well, we don’t get injected much, so, University of California at Davis fed the animals radioactive material. Lovelace and Pacific Northwest Lab had the animals inhale it.
Brooks: And so the route of administration was different. But once it got inside, and once it went where it was going to go, then the effects were very similar. So there was a lot of coordination. Every year we’d have a meeting sometime—most—a lot of the times up here. They’d have the big Hanford Symposiums. I came up to those faithfully every year. And so the people up here were well-acquainted with the people down at Lovelace ITRI.
Franklin: And what did you find as a result of—
Brooks: Well, what I found primarily is that radiation is a very good cell killer. Okay? Radiation kills cells. That’s why we use it in therapy, right?
Brooks: If you’ve got a cancer, what do you do? You radiate the sucker, right? Why do you do that? To kill the cells. The other thing I found was that radiation is very poor mutagen. I spent a lot of time trying to look at mutations induced by radiation. It kills too many cells. It’s not very good at mutating. See, about that time, another thing came along that hit here as well as there, and that was Jimmy Carter says, okay, national laboratories, we know a lot about radiation. But we don’t know anything about chemicals. So we’re going to assign each of the national laborites a chemical process for producing energy and let’s look at what that does. We were given diesel exhaust and fluidized coal combustion at Lovelace. Pacific Northwest Lab was given another—I don’t remember exactly what theirs was. I think it was something to do with coal. Okay? And so we went through and took all these techniques and technology we’d developed for radiation and applied them to chemicals. Man, there’s a lot of good mutagens in chemicals.
Brooks: You better believe it. So you get all of these chemicals from burning, chemicals from—you know, I’d take petri dishes and I’d put a bunch of cells on them. I’d irradiate them. Could have put 100,000 cells, radiate them, there’d be 4,000 or 5,000 left to be mutated for radiation. Chemicals doesn’t kill them. It just mutates them. So you get benzopyrene and methylcanthrene, all these really hot environmental chemicals. And so I said, oh, jeez, radiation’s a poor mutagen. It is not a good mutagen. A lot of other things are really hot mutagens; it’s not.
Franklin: And these chemicals were mostly from like carbon and fossil based—fossil fuels--
Franklin: --based applications?
Brooks: Yeah, they were, but Lawrence Livermore Lab was given food, okay?
Brooks: Cooking hamburgers, folks. Overdoing—burning things.
Franklin: Like, the carbon.
Brooks: The carbon, right, and all the products there. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. And about that time, a guy named Bruce Ames developed what we called the Ames Test. The Ames Test was designed to test mutagens. And we all jumped into the Ames Test. Chemicals are really good at producing mutations in the Ames Test. Radiation didn’t produce any.
Franklin: Interesting. That’s interesting because that kind of contradicts the cultural pop idea of radiation as causing massive genetic disorder or kind of positive disorders like superheroes, you know?
Brooks: Right, right.
Franklin: And stuff like that. But also negative like 50-foot ant, or you know.
Brooks: We all know where the Incredible Hulk came from. We all know Ninja Turtles, we know where we got those. That’s all radiation, folks. That’s all radiation. But in reality, radiation is not a mutagen.
Franklin: It just would have killed them.
Brooks: Sure, sure. [LAUGHTER] It might have mutated them—see, there was a big, big project down at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. They called it the Megamouse Project. Now, Megamouse Project was designed to look at mutations induced by radiation. So they took a whole bunch of male mice, radiated them almost enough to kill them. Let them recover, irradiated them again almost enough to kill them, and then bred them. They had hundreds of thousands of offspring of mice from those. How many mutations? 17 extra.
Brooks: And so when we started setting standards, the International Council on Radiation Protection and the National Council on Radiation Protection. But when I was young, mutation and cancer were about deemed equal. But as the data came in, mutations kind of went away. Okay, so mutations kind of went away. Cancer was still a big concern. So that’s what I try to do, is take my mutagenesis assays, short-term assays, and link them to cancer induction. So I treat an animal, check through his chromosomes, check for the mutations, then look for cancer in them. And so we were trying to make those links so I could do a short-term test and do a prediction, say. But, again, the more I worked, and the harder I worked, the more I understood, radiation is not a very good carcinogen, either. Otherwise, when we radiate people to cure cancer, we’d make more cancer than we cure. We don’t. The people who are radiated are cured. Some additional cancers come up, but not many.
Brooks: See, you look at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—it’s the thing I always like to talk about—is here we are—boom, you know? We drop two weapons, kill 200,000 people. Radiation’s a good killer. We had 86,000 people survive. We followed that 86,000 people for their lifetime. We know what each and every one of them died of. How many extra cancers did we see in that 86,000 people? 40,000 controls and 40,000 exposed. How many extra cancers? Had a great time, once, I was talking in a ninth grade class, telling them about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were all about asleep, you know? They weren’t too enthused about it. So I said, okay, here we got two populations. 40,000 exposed, 40,000 controls. How many extra cancers were there in the exposed? I whipped a dollar out of my wallet and said I’ll give the kid a dollar that comes the closest. You think every hand come up?
Brooks: [LAUGHTER] Every hand came up, you know. So I start writing them on the board. Oh, everybody—everybody died of cancer. No, no, you get run over by a truck, you get—everybody doesn’t die of cancer. I started trying to talk them down, trying to talk them down. Well, half of them. Three-quarters, half, a quarter. Trying to talk them down. Couldn’t. Finally some wiseacre rises his hand in the back of the room and says, nobody got cancer. I handed him the dollar because he was way closer than anybody else. So in those two populations, 40,000 people—you got to remember that 25% of us die of cancer. Radiation, no radiation, nothing. That’s a given. About a fourth of us die of cancer. So in the 40,000 without radiation, about 10,000 cancers. That’s about what we expected, about 10,000 cancers. The radiated people, how many extra? That’s always the big question. About 500. So we had 10,000 in one population, 10,500 in the other. No question, radiation increased the cancer frequency.
Franklin: But by a pretty small percentage. By—not—I think—
Brooks: It’s not huge.
Franklin: Yeah, not a huge—
Brooks: It’s not huge. And most of the people who got the cancer were the ones in the close-in zones that just about got killed from the blast and the heat and the fires.
Franklin: What about UV radiation and skin cancer?
Brooks: Well, that’s a complete different story that I don’t have much expertise in.
Franklin: Oh, sure. That’s like the only kind—
Brooks: But—yeah—ultraviolet light causes DNA adducts that causes skin cancer. No question. You go out and sit in the sun—see, now, the other part of this story—the rest of the story—is that since I’m from southern Utah, I’m a Downwinder, just like a lot of the Downwinders here, okay? So if I get cancer, I get $50,000. No questions asked. I was actually invited to be the distinguished scientist one year at the Health Physics Society meeting. And I’d just gone in to have a bunch of skin cancers removed. I’m not blond. Saint George is a hot place, man. Skin—peel and burn, man, peel and burn. Over and over. So anyway I get a lot of little skin cancers, and I’d just gone in to the doctor to have those removed when I was given this award. And so I was there in front of the group. This guy, Dr. Toohey, Dick Toohey, who’s in charge of reimbursement, came up after my talk and says, hey, what you got there? Well, went to the doctor, had a bunch of skin cancers removed. Well, what kind were they? Well, I told them the kinds. Well, how many did you have? I told him, had three. He says, you know, if you get five, you get your $50k. Okay? [LAUGHTER] Two more skin cancers, I get my $50k. But what are the facts? Is there an epidemic of cancer in southern Utah where the fallout was where we’re getting paid? Utah has the lowest cancer instance in the nation. Southern Utah, where I live, the county where the biggest fallout was, has the second lowest cancer rate in the state. But we still get paid. So I go down there and give a talk and I say, oh, jeez, you know, if they didn’t cause it, why are they paying us? Why are they paying us? That’s a hard question to ask and answer. Because that’s what they ask. Why are they paying us? So what do you tell them? I tell them, well, you had a good senator. Senator Orrin Hatch got legislation through the Senate that said southern Utah had been abused. We had fallout, no question. We had exposures, no question. So, we decided to reimburse you. Well, how many get reimbursed? Can you reimburse everybody exposed to fallout? No. Russia set off a whole bunch of nuclear weapons. We set off a bunch of nuclear weapons. We contaminated the Northern Hemisphere. Brits, they were smart. They went down to Australia to set theirs off. They contaminated the Southern Hemisphere. So, we’ve all had it, okay? So we can’t reimburse everybody, can we? So how many are we going to reimburse? Well, you know, these four counties, this county in Nevada, this county in Arizona, 25% of us get cancer, that’s about right. The same way here at the Hanford Site, you know? Downwinders. People that worked at the Site. Military people. See, so they’ve set up all these programs to pay people off that were damaged.
Brooks: [LAUGHTER] So I come at it from a little different position than—
Brooks: What I ended up doing—I’ve taken you through more than you probably ever wanted to know.
Franklin: No, not at all.
Brooks: But what happened, see, is after I left Lovelace, Roger McClellan left Lovelace, I left Lovelace. I came here and Bill Bair hired me to work out at Pacific Northwest Lab.
Franklin: Right, and what year would this have been?
Brooks: It was ’98.
Brooks: So—no, it wasn’t ’98. ’88. Excuse me.
Franklin: That’s okay.
Brooks: Anyway, I came here to work at the Pacific Northwest Lab. So I worked here for about ten years at PNNL. And I don’t know how much of that story you want to hear. Probably not too much, but—
Franklin: Well, I’d love to hear about that.
Brooks: But I worked at the cellular molecular biology group at Pacific Northwest National Lab.
Franklin: Okay. And what did you do there? Similar to—
Brooks: Well, similar. Spent a lot of time on radon.
Franklin: Ah, the home radiation.
Brooks: The home radiator. We had a big radon program at PNNL, and I was the head of that.
Franklin: Doesn’t Spokane have really high levels of radon in the nation?
Brooks: They do. They’re one of the high ones. The Reading Prong in the east, Spokane, several places have quite high radon. And so we did a lot of experimental work on radon. Again, trying to link cancer induction to [UNKNOWN] changes. So we’d have animals inhale radon, we’d look for the chromosome damage and all that. Then we’d try to look for the cancers in them. And a guy named Fred Cross—you probably have interviewed Fred Cross. You surely should have if you haven’t.
Franklin: I think we—I think we might have. I’ll have to go back.
Brooks: Anyway, because Fred Cross ran a great big radon program for exposure to animals of radon. So when I came here, I got talking to Fred and I says, hey, Fred. Rats get a lot of lung cancer when they inhale radon. But not one case of trachea or nasal cancer. You inhale it, it goes down your trachea, into your lungs. How come you don’t get tracheal cancer? You inhale—have hamsters inhale radon, you don’t get anything! Now are we humans more like rats or hamsters? [LAUGHTER] That was one of the questions, you know?
Brooks: Are we rats or are we hamsters? So I went ahead and started studying that at the cell and molecular level. When I asked a guy named Tony James, said, hey, Tony, how come rats don’t get tracheal tumors? And he says, well, maybe the dose to the trachea—the amount of radiation to the trachea is very different than the deep lungs. You inhale it, maybe it goes and stays better, and maybe that’s what it is. And I says, well, can you help me with the dose? Well, you tell me the diameter of the trachea, you tell me the velocity of the airway, you tell me the particle size, you tell me the branching angles, you tell me this—I can tell you what the dose is. I says, crap, I can’t tell you all that. I’m a simple biologist. So I went ahead and looked at the cells and see what they tell me. So we have the animals radiate, inhale the radon, go in, look at their lungs, look at the trachea, look at the nose, see how much chromosome damage there is. Same all three places. Same amount of dose, no cancer nose or trachea, lots of lung cancer. Same amount of dose. Same amount of damage. Same number of mutations. Huh! So I look at the hamsters—Chinese hamsters, Syrian hamsters. Same thing. Same amount of dose, no cancer in hamsters. Lot of cancer. So I decided that maybe mutations aren’t that important. There are other processes going on besides that. And this was something that really—a lot of people did not like.
Brooks: Because they always thought that mutations make cancer. You got a mutation that releases itself from its control, it goes ahead and it does this, this and this. Before long you have cancer. But, hey. Same number of mutations, no cancer.
Franklin: So why, then, was the cancer—same level of dose, all three areas, same level of mutations, why was the cancer only happening in the lung?
Brooks: Yeah, that’s a good question. And so, what happened then—and this is the last part of my career—is I left Pacific Northwest Lab and came to Washington State University. My office was down the hall about four places on the left down there. And when I left PNL, they were going into the molecular science center, and they closed down the radon program. So I had a couple million dollars’ worth of funding in radon, and they closed it down. Oh, Brooks, you don’t have any funding. No, I don’t, do I? So what are you going to do? Well, I’m going to try to write some grants to get some more funding. No, no, we don’t have time for that. So anyway, I changed positions over there from biology into risk assessment. And I knew that I wasn’t a risk assessor. So I spent my nights and weekends writing grants. I got a grant from NIH, National Institute of Health; I got a grant from the Department of Energy; I got a grant from NASA to study radiation in space, and to study cell and molecular changes. So I hit on three grants, so I came over here and says, hey, you know, I got some money. Is it all right if I come over here? What do you think they said? Oh, yeah, we’d love to have you.
Franklin: Open arms?
Brooks: Yeah, come on. As long as you realize that we’re not giving you any money. But you got your own money, come on. And that was wonderful, it was. It was really good. I came over here and as a result of getting the grant from DOE, then, they started what they called a Low Dose Radiation Research Project. And the Low Dose Radiation Research Project, Senator Pete Domenici out of New Mexico said, hey, we’re spending billions of dollars cleaning up waste, we’re spending billions of dollars on concern over medicine use. We’re concerned about nuclear weapons, we’re concerned about terrorists, but we don’t know much about low doses. We know what happens up here at this high dose region, where we really kicked the devil out of you, you get cancer. What about the low dose? Of course, at that time, we’d sequenced the genome, we had all of these new tools and techniques where we could go down and look. So DOE started what they called the Low Dose Program. They had what they called the Chief Scientist for the Low Dose Program, and I got that. So I sat here at Washington State University and ran the Low Dose Program out of Washington, DC with a lady named Noelle Metting. So, my job was the best in the world. My boss was in Washington, DC. I was here, sitting down the hall. And we helped them run this program where we had about $25 million a year. We distributed it to the very best scientists we could find anywhere in the world. We didn’t just limit it to US scientists. If you had an idea or a technique that was unique, we’d give you money. We gave money to Grey Lab in England where they had a microbeam where they could shoot individual cells. We gave money to the Australians where they were able to look at mutations in animals at very, very low levels. We gave money over in the Ukraine where they went over and studied a lot of the rodents after the Chernobyl fallout. And so we had all the very best—I thought—the very best cell and molecular biologists in the world studying the health effects of low doses. And my job, along with the lady named Leslie Couch, who worked here with me, was to run the program and to take the abstracts and take the information and put it in a kind of language that the lay people could maybe understand. We scientists, we don’t care. If I can talk to my two best friends, that’s all I care, you know. [LAUGHTER] I don’t care if the Rotary Club understands what I’m doing. But that’s one of the problems we’ve had. See, the public’s perception is way over here. The real world is way over there. And we as scientists have not done the job. We have not done the job. So that was my job here for about ten years, at Washington State.
Franklin: So what did you find?
Brooks: We found that the response of cells and molecules at low doses is very different than high doses. At high doses, you’ve got injury, you’ve got repair. At low doses, a whole different set of genes gets turned on, whole different processes are upregulated. But the wisdom of our political system killed the system, shut the program down. I retired and went to White Pass and ran a girls’ camp for a couple of years. And Bill Morgan came to Pacific Northwest Lab and took over at the Low Dose Program. Now, I don’t know if you’ve—Bill passed away last year. Huge loss. So Bill came and took over my job that I had as the chief scientist. And then I got running the website for them, see? And so they gave the website to Pacific Northwest Lab. So while I was running [LAUGHTER] a girls’ camp, plowing snow, which I did yesterday—went up and helped them. [LAUGHTER] Trying to keep the roads clean. Then Bill was running the website here for two years. It’s really interesting because the website really got quite popular. Because we were putting all the new information into it, and publications—lots and lots of publications on what happens at low doses and how different it is than high doses.
Franklin: What constitutes a low dose?
Brooks: Well, what you have to realize is that we live in a sea of radiation, okay? There’s a background amount of radiation that we all have. The higher in elevation you get, the more you get. If you live in Denver, you get way more than you do here. So what usually people do is say, well, here’s the background, and some value above that must be a low dose. [LAUGHTER] How fast you give it is the other thing, is how fast you get it. The body’s able to recover and repair. So if you give 100 rads or one gray all in one second, that does a lot more damage than if you give that over a year. Your body repairs and eliminates the bad cells. And that’s the other thing we found: a lot of protective processes that we didn’t realize existed.
Franklin: You mean the body’s own protective processes.
Brooks: Sure. The body has a built-in system, man. We’re being insulted by all kinds of things all the time, and, golly, we’re still alive. We should have been dead, see, if it wasn’t repairing. So anyway, I ran this Low Dose Program and then I went up to Camp Zarahemla. When I got there, I still had money left in my grant from the Department of Energy. Then I talked to Dr. Metting and I says, look, Noelle, I can send this money back to DOE if you’d like. Or you can let me keep it and I’ll write a book on the history of the program. And so the two years while I was at Camp Zarahemla, I spent every morning writing the history and so I compiled all of publications, put together the history, and got that all published just as I—all put together—just as I came out of there. And they made a website, put it on the website, so it’s been on the website for a while. But I couldn’t get her to publish it. And so, the bottom line on that is that DOE has finally given Pacific Northwest Lab some money to help me get that published. And Washington State University is publishing it.
Brooks: And it’s supposed to be out in April.
Franklin: Oh, wow, cool. Congratulations.
Brooks: So anyway. [LAUGHTER] But anyway, that’s the history of the DOE Low Dose Program. That’s what I did at the very last of my career. Now, when I got back from Camp Zarahemla where we were running the girls’ camp, Bill Morgan says, you know, this is a lot more work than I thought it was going to be. Why don’t you come and help me? So Bill wrote a contract for me as a private—I set up a company and we—DOE says, well you can run it through PNL, or you can run it through Washington State, or you can set up a private company and run it there. They had a set amount of money that they were willing to give me. I thought, oh, PNL has an overhead rate of a little over 100%. Washington State has an overhead rate of about 40%. My company has no overhead rate. I think I’ll do it that way. [LAUGHTER] So anyway, Bill was very nice, and he helped me set up and get funded through PNL. So I worked, then, for PNL on the website for a number of years after I got back from camp. Then of course Bill passed away and the program there has gone down to where there’s not much left. So that’s where I am today. I still—PNL gave me some money to get the book published, so that’s very nice. And I work for EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, where they’ve been paying me some money to write some papers. I got a very nice paper published with two real good people, Julian Preston, who’s a geneticist and David Holm who’s an epidemiologist, where we looked at dose rate. See, now, how important is dose rate? Now, this is a big argument now, whether, if you give dose over a long period of time, it’s less effective than giving it all at once. All the data says that’s true. The Germans, on the other hand, have eliminated nuclear power, and they have decided that there is no benefit of protracting the radiation.
Franklin: Of what?
Brooks: Of protracting it, extending it out in time. In other words, if I give you one unit of radiation in one second, or if I give you one unit of radiation in ten years, the effect is the same. Does that make sense to you?
Franklin: It doesn’t if the data doesn’t support it.
Brooks: Well, the data doesn’t support it. Because every cell in your body is whacked when you give it all at once. You give it over time, the cells are turning over; any individual cell doesn’t see much. All he sees is a very low dose. He responds differently to that than he does this whack.
Franklin: The whack turns on different—
Brooks: Turns on a different set of genes, turns on a different set of processes. I’m trying to survive up here, okay? We found, for example, if you take—we developed a microbeam here at PNL—Les Braby did—where we could take and shoot individual cells with alpha particles. So we get under a microscope, get a bunch of kids that were good with video games, shoot that cell, and move, shoot this one, and shoot that one. We knew exactly which cells we’d shot. We knew exactly how many alpha particles we’d shot them with. Then we look at the response. That was what I was doing, looking at the response. It was really kind of neat, because you’d hit one cell, cell over here would responded. Of course! We’re talking to each other. We’re not a single cell. We don’t have eyes in our liver, you know. Come on. When we develop—and so, that was what we call the bystander effect. This is one of the things we found at the Low Dose Program. You hit one cell, the whole tissue responds.
Franklin: Trying to prevent the damage, right?
Brooks: Yeah, what does it do? It’s trying to prevent the damage. So if you hit one cell, it sends out messages: I’ve been hit! Help! What do the other cells do? Pew! Kill it. You’re out of here. It’s called apoptosis, or spontaneous programmed cell death.
Franklin: You hit the whole tissue at once, then they all can’t respond.
Brooks: Right, everybody’s damaged, folks. But if one cell gets hit, the whole tissue responds to try to save the tissue, not the cell. They’ll kill that cell. It’s called selective apoptosis, where you just eliminate that guy. And so there’s a lot of that—really fun. I just had a great time at it.
Franklin: That’s great. Did you ever find out why the rat lungs were prone to cancers, whereas the esophagus and the trachea were not?
Brooks: Well, you know, the thing that we found in the Low Dose Program was the cell communication. The cells in the trachea and esophagus are nicely arranged in nice little columns. And the communication is very nice between them. In the lung, you get this thing spread out. You kill a cell over here, you stimulate another over there, you do this, this, that. Very different project. And so I think that what’s happening is that the cells that are able to maintain communication, maintain structure—if you have an inflammatory disease, okay, esophageal reflex. What do you get? You get esophageal cancer. No radiation, no mutations. Inflammatory disease. So any time you get tissue disorganization, inflammation. We did that with the lungs. We’d have these animals inhale radioactive material. If you gave them enough, you’d kill them. They’d die, pneumonitis, fibrosis, the lungs would fill up with water and they’d die. If you give them a little less than that so they didn’t die of that, almost every one of them got cancer—lung cancer. If you go down a little lower, but still an awful lot, but protracted over a long period of time, almost nothing.
Franklin: And why did the Syrian or Chinese hamsters not get the lung cancer when they were exposed to the same amount?
Brooks: Well, that’s what we call genetic variability, okay? You and I are different. You and I are different. Every one of us has our own genetic difference. As you looked into these animals, they had different pathways. They have different ways to repair. They’re different.
Franklin: Sure, sure.
Brooks: If you look at the human population, we’ve got sensitive people, we’ve got resistant people. I think the sensitive people are more like rats and the resistant ones more like the hamsters. That’s one of the things that we’re starting to unravel. What are the pathways and what are the ones that are important? That’s when the program was killed. And so that’s one of the things I’m pushing really hard and working with a lot of people now to see if we can get money back into that program. It’s really a critical thing.
Franklin: Sure. I believe you. I mean, it sounds like understanding—because we all live with low dose and varying amounts of low dose.
Brooks: That’s right.
Franklin: And especially as we don’t have that kind of constant testing of radiation anymore, we might get exposed to different variabilities, right?
Brooks: Right, right.
Franklin: I’m wondering if you could talk about the consequences of that. Because I’ve heard a little bit about it, of the loss of the generations that kind of ingested the radiation from atomic weapons testing. Do you know what I’m talking about?
Brooks: Not for sure.
Franklin: That there was ways to kind of track where people were, based on the amount of material in their cells that they had ingested from the atomic weapons testing, and that now there’s a generation that has grown up since the ban and doesn’t have those kind of genetic markers anymore.
Brooks: No. Yeah, I don’t know. I think, of course, once you take the radiation—and we’re very, very good at detecting radiation. That’s one of the things that we’re really good at. And that really impressed me when I went from working with radiation to working with hot chemicals. Radiation—if I spill something—I knew right where it was. Chemical, I spill something, I don’t know where it was. So we’re so good at testing and detecting. My generation, I can go in and get counted today, and they’d tell me how much strontium I’ve still got in my bones. I had thyroid. We counted people all over the state of Utah that had fairly significant amounts of radiation in them. Chernobyl, Fukushima. Lots and lots and lots and lots of people have ingested lots and lots and lots of radiation. And so it’s not a mystery box anymore. The mystery box is the fact that it hasn’t been very effective. And I’ve just been really grateful for that. Because when I was growing up, I thought, oh, crap, you know? We’re going to have a cancer epidemic in southern Utah the likes of which you’ve never seen before. It didn’t develop. Chernobyl, we went over there and set up a study. Guy named Admiral Zumwalt was a Navy admiral. He knew the Navy admirals over in Russia. So we got all of us together and set up a big study to study Chernobyl. We had each of the Russian countries matched with the United States group. We had Ukraine and Belarus and Russia, all matched with Fred Hutch, one group, Texas, another group, Boston, another group. So we got all our best people, matched them with theirs, to go over and look at that. Chernobyl had just happened. We wanted to find out, again, are we going to have terrible cancer epidemic in Russia? And now it’s been 20-plus years, 30 years, after Chernobyl, huh? 20-something years.
Franklin: 30. A little more than 30, because it was 1986, right?
Franklin: April of ’86.
Brooks: So, ’86, I was still a youngster. Anyway, I was sitting on this committee. Been sitting on it for years. When we started, our prediction was that we were really going to have some serious problems with cancer, especially leukemia—especially childhood leukemia. And thyroid. See, the Russians didn’t need people telling people in Pripyat that they had a problem for several days. So they were there sucking in the iodine-131—thyroid getting really kicked. So all of our models, all of that, said, boy, we have a serious problem here. The longer we did it, the more measurements we made, the longer we followed it up—where are the cancers? Where are the cancers? Zero excess solid cancers, with exception of cancer of the thyroid of children. Huge increase in cancer of the thyroid in children.
Franklin: And is that a result of the radioactive iodine?
Brooks: It is the radioactive iodine, very high doses.
Franklin: And we’re talking about people in the surrounding area, not talking about the responders.
Brooks: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. The responders, they got zinged. They got zinged. We killed a bunch of them. You know, the Russians, they had a very different philosophy than what we have. It’s like me having a great big bonfire here and saying, why don’t you go stand in the middle of that bonfire? You know, I’d rather not. They knew how hot that was. They knew going in there was going to be lethal. But they sent them in. See, we wouldn’t have done that. Okay? But, yeah, first responders—
Franklin: So why the children and not adult—if they were all in the same environment, why the children and not the adult?
Brooks: That’s really a good question. Why the children and not the adults? Children thyroids are developing. There’s lots of cell division in there. There’s lots of opportunities for things to go wrong. Adult thyroids are just sitting there, doing their thing. Almost no cell proliferation, almost no cell division, no differentiation. They’re just sitting there. Now, you take the liver, which just sits there—I did a lot of work on liver. Liver cells, you can radiate the devil out of them as long as you don’t make them divide, they seem to be fine. But you stimulate them to divide—I could go in and flop out part of the liver, make the liver divide, up come the cancer. So there’s a lot of processes, but the children’s thyroids were sensitive.
Franklin: And it’s the—so then is the cancer then carried in the division? Is that how it multiplies? [INAUDIBLE] establishing a link--
Brooks: Either that—carried or expressed.
Franklin: Carried or expressed, okay. So does the action of division make it—the cells more likely to turn cancerous? Or do we still—
Brooks: Well, cell tissues that have more rapid cell division have more cancer in them.
Brooks: Bone marrow, GI tract, lung.
Brooks: Skin, yeah, skin. But you look at the liver, almost never divides. Radiation doesn’t produce much in the way of brain cancer—cells don’t divide. Muscles, nothing. Bone marrow, gut, skin—all of those dividing—rapidly dividing cells. If the exposure is given acutely.
Brooks: But if it’s protracted in time, it’s very different.
Brooks: Because the cells are dividing, and one cell gets hit, its great-grandson maybe get hit. But if you get them all at once, and they have to all divide, and they have to all survive, and they have to all repopulate, that’s where it comes.
Franklin: Gotcha. Well, thank you, Tony.
Brooks: Well, that’s probably more than you ever wanted to hear.
Franklin: No, I think it’s really instructive. And it definitely complicates—complicates our idea of how radiation affects the body, but clarifies and I think kind of dispels some of the misinformation and myths that surround—
Brooks: Yeah, fear is a really important part of this whole thing. We had a meeting up at Leavenworth where we brought in scientists from around the world and spent a week up there, trying to decide and discuss what we could do about the fear of radiation. We had a guy from Argentina, we had a guy from Germany, we had a guy from Australia, we had three of us from the United States, and we spent a week up there. It’s really difficult to decide what makes people so afraid of anything. I’m afraid of snakes. Okay. You can tell me that snake’s not going to bite me, but don’t put it on me.
Franklin: Well it’s tough, right, because fear is a natural human response to keep us alive. It’s a safety feature. Yeah, fear of the unknown. Tony, is there anything that I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to mention in the interview?
Brooks: Well, I don’t know, other than it has been really an exciting career for me.
Brooks: We’ve had a wonderful time, got to do a lot of interesting things, meet a lot of interesting people. I can say the main thing that I’d like to be able to help with is to help people know that if you go in and the doctor says you need a CT scan, take it. The radiation dose from a CT scan is so low that you don’t worry about it. If you need an x-ray, take it. If the dentist wants to look at your teeth, take it. Because the risks are so very small.
Franklin: And that radiation doesn’t automatically cause cancer.
Franklin: It depends on the time of the dose and the amount of—
Brooks: Right. And, see, that’s the public perception, that if I get radiated, I will get cancer. If I get cancer, the radiation caused it. And that’s a hard perception to break, because it’s absolutely not true.
Franklin: Sure, okay. Well, great, thank you so much, Tony. I really appreciated the interview.
Brooks: It’s been fun, I can say.
Franklin: Well, I’m glad we could get this for—and that Parker didn’t have one with you—Parker Foundation. So I’m kind of glad that we could kind of get you in with all those other voices about radiation and health safety. Because you have a lot of—a lot of what you said was really instructive. And you said it so easily that—you know, I’m a historian, an archivist. I’m not a radiation expert. I know I’ve been working on this project about some of the basics, but it was very easy to understand. And so you spent your life dedicated to that; you’re a trustworthy source.
Brooks: Well, that’s right. I’ve invested my life, basically, trying to do that. And I started off scared to death of it. Okay?
Brooks: And the more I worked and the more I’ve studied and the more I’ve seen, all the way from the animals to the humans to the tissue to the cells to the molecules, everything tells the same story.
Franklin: Yeah. Great, well, thanks so much.
Brooks: Hey, thank you, man.
Franklin: Yeah, thank you.
Years in Tri-Cities Area
Years on Hanford Site