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The Past Informs the Future: An Overview of the Million Worker Study and the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works Cohort

Boice, John, D., Jr.*†; Ellis, Elizabeth, D.; Golden, Ashley, P.; Girardi, David, J.; Cohen, Sarah, S.§; Chen, Heidi; Mumma, Michael, T.**; Shore, Roy, E.; Leggett, Richard, W.††

doi: 10.1097/HP.0000000000000825

The purpose of this paper is to present an overview of ongoing work on the Million Worker Study (MWS), highlighting some of the key methods and progress so far as exemplified by the study of workers at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works (MCW). The MWS began nearly 25 y ago and continues in a stepwise fashion, evaluating one study cohort at a time. It includes workers from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Manhattan Project facilities, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulated nuclear power plants, industrial radiographers, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) nuclear weapons test participants, and physicians and technologists working with medical radiation. The purpose is to fill the major gap in radiation protection and science: What is the risk when exposure is received gradually over time rather than briefly as for the atomic bomb survivors? Studies published or planned in 2018 include leukemia (and dosimetry) among atomic veterans, leukemia among nuclear power plant workers, mortality among workers at the MCW, and a comprehensive National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) Report on dosimetry for the MWS. MCW has a singular place in history: the 40 tons (T) of uranium oxide produced at MCW were used by Enrico Fermi on 2 December 1942 to produce the first manmade sustained and controlled nuclear reaction, and the atomic age was born. Seventy-six years later, the authors followed the over 2,500 MCW workers for mortality and reconstructed dose from six sources of exposure: external gamma rays from the radioactive elements in pitchblende; medical x rays from occupationally required chest examinations; intakes of pitchblende (uranium, radium, and silica) measured by urine samples; radon breath analyses and dust surveys overseen by Robley Evans and Merril Eisenbud; occupational exposures received before and after employment at MCW; and cumulative radon concentrations and lung dose from the decay of radium in the work environment. The unique exposure reconstructions allow for multiple evaluations, including estimates of silica dust. The study results are relevant today. For example, NASA is interested that radium, deposited in the brain, releases high-LET alpha particles - the only human analogue, though limited, for high energy, high-Z particles (galactic cosmic rays) traveling through space that might affect astronauts on Mars missions. Don’t discount the past; it’s the prologue to the future!

*National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 400, Bethesda, MD 20814‐3095; †Vanderbilt University Medical School and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Vanderbilt Epidemiology Center, 2525 West End Ave., 8th Floor, Nashville, TN 37203-1738; ‡Oak Ridge Associated Universities, MC-210, 100 ORAU Way, Oak Ridge, TN 37830; §EpidStat Institute, 2100 Commonwealth Blvd., Suite 203, Ann Arbor, MI 48105; **International Epidemiology Institute, 1455 Research Blvd., Suite 550, Rockville, MD 20850; ††Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Building 1505, Oak Ridge, TN 37831-0638.

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

For correspondence contact: John D. Boice, Jr., National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 400, Bethesda, MD 20814‐3095, or email at

(Manuscript accepted 14 November 2017)

© 2018 by the Health Physics Society