John Gofman

(1992, USA)
Joint Award with Alla Yaroshinskaya

...for his pioneering work in exposing the health effects of low-level radiation.

About

John Gofman was born in 1918. While a graduate student in physical chemistry in 1942, Gofman proved the fissionability of uranium 233 and developed the process with which he and his co-workers successfully isolated the first workable quantity of plutonium and discovered several radioactive isotopes of uranium and protoactinium. His subsequent pioneering work on the chemistry of lipoproteins and their relationship with heart disease received several medical awards.

Contact Details

Committee for Nuclear Responsibility
PO Box 421993
San Francisco
CA 94142
USA

Website

Biography

John Gofman held a Ph.D. in nuclear/physical chemistry and a medical degree. Born in 1918, he was a Professor in Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California at Berkeley. While a graduate student in physical chemistry in 1942, Gofman proved the fissionability of uranium 233 and developed the process with which he and his co-workers successfully isolated the first workable quantity of plutonium and discovered several radioactive isotopes of uranium and protoactinium. His subsequent pioneering work on the chemistry of lipoproteins and their relationship with heart disease received several medical awards.

In 1963, Gofman joined the Atomic Energy Commission's Lawrence Livermore Laboratory as an Associate Director, and was the founder and director of the Laboratory's Biomedical Research Division. There he gradually became concerned about the health effects of low-level radiation and broke with the Laboratory after intense pressure was put on himself and a colleague not to reveal the results of their research in this area. Their subsequent book, Poisoned Power: The Case Against Nuclear Power Plants (Rodale Press, 1971, 1979) was a key stimulus to the early anti-nuclear movement.

In 1971, Gofman founded the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, a small non-profit, public interest association with three Nobel Laureates on its Board. His independent research yielded higher risk estimates from low-level radiation than the estimates funded by various governments. His books showed how his analyses proceeded from raw data to final conclusions, with no hidden steps. His goals were to demystify this field of research, so that people were not dependent on estimates sponsored by governments.

On his Radiation and Human Health (Sierra Club Books, 1981), a review by the Journal of the American Medical Association said: "Gofman not only demonstrates his mastery of this complex subject but carefully explains the basic concepts". Another book, X-Rays: Health Effects of Common Exams (with Egan O'Connor, Sierra Club Books 1985), was described by the New England Journal of Medicine as "destined to represent a watershed in the controversial field of low-dosage radiobiology", while his next, Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure (Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, 1990) was welcomed by the same journal as "excellent and timely". It was published in English and Russian. Subsequent works have included: Chernobyl Accident: Radiation Consequences for This and Future Generations (Vysheishaya Shkola, Minsk 1994, in Russian), and Preventing Breast Cancer (CNR, 1995), reporting research which indicated about 75 per cent of breast cancer in the USA to be the result of medical radiation.

Gofman was critical of the conduct of certain radiation studies, such as retroactive alterations in the database of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. To restore the standard barriers against the entry of bias, Gofman called for an independent 'Watchdog Authority' to oversee such studies, including also studies of Chernobyl health effects. Such an authority would enforce the essential rules of good scientific practice: no changes of input after the preliminary results are known, 'blinding' of dose and diagnostic analysts, comparable groups, a credible difference in dose, and no excessive subdivision of data which can render all findings statistically non-significant.

John Gofman died in August 2007 at the age of 88.

Speeches

Acceptance Speech by John Gofman

December 9th, 1992

A Key Step in Protecting the World's Health

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is with pleasure and gratitude that I accept a Right Livelihood Award to help advance a common-sense project - a project whose goal would benefit ordinary people worldwide.

What is the goal? Why is it an important one? What sort of project might succeed in achieving it?

1. The Goal Which Our Project Addresses

The goal for which we share a Right Livelihood Award is the goal of ensuring that conclusions about the health consequences of various pollutants are based on databases which can be trusted. Our project starts with the database on health consequences from Chernobyl, advances to other radiation databases, and embraces databases on dioxin, pesticides, mercury, and other major pollutants.

By databases, we mean the original raw data on exposure-levels of the pollutant, and on the health status of participants in the study. The accuracy of a database is the key to every conclusion which emerges from it.

If the database itself is false - either from careless work or from intentional bias - it will cause innocent analysts of such data to fill the medical journals and textbooks with misinformation. A false database renders all its users into agents of possibly deadly misinformation, no matter how honest and filled with goodwill they may be. 

2. The Goal's Importance

The consequences of false databases can vary from trivial to tragic. Naturally, our concern is with the latter. If future pollution is permitted on the basis of a false database, the result can be widespread misery from millions of unnecessary cancers, for example, or from brain-damage, or from damage to humanity's genetic heritage.

And so, ensuring trustworthy databases is not an academic issue. In reality, this goal connects directly with one of the top concerns of ordinary people: Health. For themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.

To reduce error in bio-medical research, both from carelessness and from deliberate bias, science has gradually developed basic Rules of Research which set up barriers to such errors. For comparing exposed and non-exposed groups in epidemiological studies, the rules include: Comparable groups, a real difference in dose, a sufficiently big difference in dose, careful reconstruction of dose, "blinding" of dose analysts, "blinding" of diagnostic analysts, no changes of input after results are known, no excessive sub-division of data, and no pre-judgments.

In radiation health research, unfortunately, we have documented serious disregard for some of these basic rules. And we have shown that the results become much more favorable to nuclear pollution when the basic Rules of Research have been broken, than when they have been obeyed.
(Details are in "Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure: An Independent Analysis" (book, 1990), "Holocaust versus Nothing Happened: Tales from a Distant Place" (1991), "No One Escapes Harm: the Essential Story of In-Utero Irradiation" (1992); "Chernobyl Accident: Health Consequences for This and Future Generations" (book, 1993). All are available from the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, Post Office Box 421993, San Francisco, California 94142, USA.) 

What is not generally recognized by ordinary people is that the current situation in radiation research is almost like reliance on the tobacco industry to conduct all the research on the health consequences from smoking. In radiation research, nearly all the work is sponsored by the governments which are defending and promoting nuclear power.

The public surely has the right to protect its health by demanding an independent "second opinion" about radiation. 

Ever since the Chernobyl accident, some familiar speculations have been revived in both scientific and popular media. They include

(a) the speculation that radiation received slowly from nuclear pollution is much less harmful than the radiation received all at once at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, (b) the speculation that radiation is harmless unless doses are high and (c) the speculation that extra radiation may even be good for you.

As a scientist, I have always taken these possibilities seriously, and have spent years of my life testing the possibilities with the existing evidence and with logic. I, too, would PREFER for radiation to be harmless. What person of goodwill would not?

But unfortunately, evidence and logic require me to issue a grave warning: Ionizing radiation may well be the most important single cause of cancer, birth defects, and genetic disorders. We do not want to add MORE radiation to our unavoidable radiation doses from nature.

We are saying that the stakes for human health are very, very high in radiation matters. It is essential that people take no chance that conflict-of-interest is producing radiation databases which are built with disregard for the basic Rules of Research and which therefore cannot be trusted. 

3. A Project Which Might Achieve the Goal

Our common-sense proposal is the establishment of independent "watchdog authorities" for every radiation database, starting with the Chernobyl database. This database is already under construction by the International Program on the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident (IPHECA). The main sponsors of the IPHECA study are the governments of the United States, Britain, Russia, France, Germany and Japan. So once again, we mention reliance on the tobacco industry to tell you all about the hazards of smoking. The governments mentioned will conduct their Chernobyl study through the World Health Organization.

Our "watchdog" proposal is that IPHECA will fund and accept a team of independent "watchdogs" or "whistle-blowing" scientists to work inside its Chernobyl study, with the authority to check that every Rule of Research is obeyed, and to publish their own views as an integral part of every IPHECA document. As a result of the Right Livelihood Award, we can help develop international support for making an official "watchdog" proposal to IPHECA. Of course, we will not seek any funding for ourselves under the proposal.

If the World Health Organization expects anyone to believe its IPIIECA study of Chernobyl health effects, it should itself be proposing the independent "watchdog authority" which we are proposing.

If there is no cover-up intended, and if only the most objective, careful research is wanted, why would IPHECA resist the presence of an independent "watchdog authority"? Why would it resist funding the independent authority with about five percent of its multi-million-dollar budget? Would the "watchdog authority" demoralize IPHECA's own scientists, by inferring that they might participate in a cover-up?

Nonsense. We do not think that most radiation scientists are scoundrels. However, it would be naive, to deny that many people do compromise high principles and do participate in cover-ups in order to please their sources of employment. We think humans are ashamed of such compromises, and would much prefer to be honest and to do impeccable work.

Under our proposal, EVERYONE wins. The "watchdog authority" liberates all the IPHECA workers so that they can readily resist humiliation pressures, follow their best principles, and obey every Role of Research. If their sponsors are displeased with this behavior, the IPHECA workers can safely respond, "But otherwise, a watchdog would have blown the whistle on this project." Although IPHECA scientists may publicly oppose the "watchdog" proposal, we are confident that most of them will privately WELCOME it.

4. Is This Just Common Sense?

We call the "watchdog authority" a common-sense proposal because it amounts to establishing a system which rewards and honors truth-telling whistle-blowers, instead of punishing them with loss of employment - which happens so often now. My colleague, Alla Yaroshinskaya, can tell you about the treatment of whistle-blowers.

It is common sense for society to figure out how to reward the kind of behaviour it WANTS instead of rewarding bad behavior. The Right Livelihood Award deserves praise for recognising this principle in what it honors. Jakob von Uexkull summarized the situation elegantly when he wrote: "If our most important needs today are not new technological fixes but new social values and institutions ... then these priorities need to be reflected in what our society honors and supports." (From the Foreword to "A New World Order: Grassroots Movements for Global Change," by Paul Ekins (London: Routledge), 1992.) 

Because it is common sense to have independent "watchdog authorities," many people may assume that they already exist for research on various pollutants. But the fact is that they do not yet exist for even ONE pollutant.

It is not too late to remedy the situation. It requires, however, insistence that it be done, and the insistence will have to come from ordinary people - the "grassroots" of society. Again, I agree with Jakob von Uexkull and Paul Ekins, that ordinary people are the source of solutions. Indeed, I think they are the ONLY source, because we so rarely see justice initiated from the top ... on any issue.

5. Realism about the Big Problems.  

Using the tobacco industry as an image, we expect that the sponsors of research on radiation and other types of pollutants will probably fight fiercely to kill the "watchdog" idea. And when the idea is accepted nevertheless, then we must remain vigilant to insure that the independent experts are not just sheep who wear a "watchdog" costume. One must be realistic about human corruptibility.

Some years ago, an interviewer suggested to me that it is too difficult for grassroots people to solve BIG problems. He thought it was futile. I still answer now, as I answered then:

Of course it will be difficult to solve the big problems of humanity. But can you, or I, or anyone justify directing all our efforts toward solving trivial problems ... just because the ones we all really need to face are difficult?

Thank you!

Publications

Radiation from Medical Procedures in the Pathogenesis of Cancer and Ischemic Heart Disease: Dose-Response Studies with Physicians per 100,000 Population. Read Executive Summary of the full monograph (1999). Download (pdf)

How the Cold War Caused Millions of American Deaths Through Medical Practice:
A Story of Intended and Unintended Consequences.
 XaHP Document 109, April 2001. Download (pdf)

Breast Cancer: Why Do We Permit So Many Preventable Cases? XaHP Document 110, June 2001. Download (pdf)

Medical X-Rays As an Environmental Toxin: Proposal for Professional Action. San Francisco Medical Society. Download (pdf)

Contact

Right Livelihood Award Foundation

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