The Marshall Island have been the site for many nuclear tests by the United States. While it has a small population of around 69,000, they have benefitted by receiving around $759 million dollars in compensation over the years for those nuclear tests by the United States. The basis for that compensation would seem to be for health effects of the nuclear tests: cancer and birth defects.†

The Wikipedia article states that there has been an increase in cancer and birth defects:

Nuclear tests at Enewatak have left islanders there suffering from Cancer and birth defects.[27]

The citation points to a website for health statistics on the Marshall Islands, but does not mention cancer or birth defects, or direct one to more information about anyone "suffering from cancer and birth defects".

I'm skeptical of this claim because it seems unsupported by fact and it's overly vague. This is a notable claim because it's not just believed that cancer and birth defects would arise from the nuclear tests, but I understand these health effects underly the basis for the huge payments to the people of the Marshall Islands as compensation.

As regards cancer rates, an article by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health entitled “Radiation doses and cancer risks in the Marshall Islands associated with exposure to radioactive fallout from Bikini and Enewetak nuclear weapons tests” states:

About 170 excess cancers (radiation-related cases) are projected to occur among more than 25,000 Marshallese, half of whom were born before 1948. All but about 65 of those cancers are estimated to have already been expressed. The 170 excess cancers are in comparison to about 10,600 cancers that would spontaneously arise, unrelated to radioactive fallout, among the same cohort of Marshallese people.

If I read that correctly, the increase in cancer on the Marshall Islands is less than 1% (i.e. 170 more cancer diagnoses than the background rate of around 10,600). I would not call that particularly significant, speaking in absolute terms or relative ones.

Is this study incorrect or have I misunderstood it, and there was a significant increase in cancer arising out of the Marshall Islands nuclear tests? Was there any significant increase in birth defects? Am I incorrect about the basis for compensation being for the health effects?

I'm not skeptical as to whether radiation can increase cancer and birth defects; only whether there has been a significant increase in the Marshall Islands since the US tested nuclear weapons there.

† I have not verified the basis for compensation to the islands being health effects; clarification would change the notability of this claim somewhat.

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    1% can be significant. Compare it to the AIDS infection rates through unprotected sex. They are comparably “tiny” and still have a devastating effect. Same for the risks of passive smoking (the danger, expressed in numbers, is much less, and still causes a very noticeable effect). Commented Oct 3, 2011 at 20:10

1 Answer 1


The paper you link to (Health Phys. 2010 Aug;99(2):105-23.) is a projection using estimates of radiation doses and estimates from other sources to find additional cancers. The doses come from a paper published simultaneously (Health Phys. 2010 Aug;99(2):157-200.) with similar authors. Such studies may be the best you can do when the effect is relatively small.

The link in Wikipedia may not give what you were expecting but it is a single click to causes of death which says in 2004 there were 23 deaths from cancer (8.7% of total) and in 2005 15 (5.0%). Another click will take you to deaths by age including under 1 and 1-4 years old. There will be more cancers than this (people with cancer can die for other reasons) and child birth defects which do not cause death, and anyway you would want data back to the 1950s. Even then you would find it hard to untangle other effects such as varying economic growth and health services.

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    so two papers published by the same people at the same time reference each other to come to a specific conclusion. Doesn't sound like good scientific practice to me... Not saying it's an incorrect conclusion, but the way it was reached is suspect.
    – jwenting
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 6:29
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    @jwenting: The two papers covered different topics: one was the dose received and the other the impact of that dose. Would they have been more convincing if they had been a single paper?
    – Henry
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 7:07
  • to me, yes, they'd certainly come across as more honest. As is, they give the perception of the authors wanting to create outside sources for their data when they are the source (self referencing, something this site for good reasons frowns upon, and so does the scientific community). Having outside sources (other studies for example) corroborate their data would be far better of course.
    – jwenting
    Commented Oct 4, 2011 at 8:33
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    @jwenting In general, there is no reason for the scientific community to frown upon self referencing. This is done quite frequently and is used to show how an idea has evolved as new information is collected. Self-referencing can be used inappropriately, and there may be reason to question the finding of a single researcher if it is not reproduced by other groups, but self-referencing is fine and widely practiced in science. Commented Oct 5, 2011 at 5:21
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    @Chad it is not necessarily a problem to have a circular reference. Not only in the present case of a collection of articles presented as a special feature. If a lab group or group of collaborators keep up with drafts of each other's works then such circular referencing is likely to occur. There is an enormous problem of inappropriate / inaccurate use of citations in scientific literature, but this type of self-referencing is not the problem, plus, it is transparent. Commented Oct 19, 2012 at 7:30

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