The term ‘nuclear winter’ was first coined in the 1980s by scientists using climate models to assess the impact of nuclear war on life on earth. The nuclear winter theory got its name because of the significant decrease in global temperatures due to a large amount of smoke and dust injected into the atmosphere as a result of a nuclear detonation.
Some climate change simulation models show that a nuclear conflict could cause a decrease in the global mean surface temperature of around 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) and extreme changes in precipitation (rainfall and snowfall).
This decrease in temperature would have a devastating impact on many ecosystems, agriculture, and human health. Cancer patients would be particularly vulnerable to the effects of nuclear winter, not to mention that the cancer incidence would be expected to rise as a result of these conditions.
Let’s explore the theoretical impact of a nuclear attack on life in general and how that would impact cancer survival.
Lack of food
A nuclear winter does not only include a drastic reduction in the average global temperature. The excessive smoke, soot, and dust from nuclear explosions pumped into the atmosphere would also block out the sun – this would halt photosynthesis in plants and disrupt the food chain.
Numerous studies predict that onset of nuclear winter would cause a decrease in food production of up to 90% in the growing season. Even in the following years and decades, food production would not recover to pre-war levels due to the lack of sunlight and radioactive contamination of soil. One food security scientist at NASA concluded that, in the five years after a theoretical nuclear blast, the global maize (corn) production would fall by 13%, wheat production by 11%, and soybean production by 17%.
This would have a devastating impact on humanity and result in a nuclear famine.
Cancer patients would be particularly vulnerable to the lack of food due to their already weakened state. Not only would they experience weight loss and muscle wasting, but they would also be susceptible to infections due to a compromised immune system. In the long term, cancer patients would be at higher risk of death from starvation compared to the general population.
Lack of medical supplies
Put simply, the world isn’t prepared for nuclear winter. In the case of nuclear bomb detonation, especially multiple ones in different regions, hospitals would be overwhelmed with patients. The lack of electricity, fuel, and medical supplies would make it virtually impossible to treat patients.
Public health systems around the globe would be disrupted in ways worse than we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are barely beginning to scratch the surface of how the pandemic affected cancer patients.
In a nuclear winter, we could likely see the total collapse of health systems around the world. This would have a devastating impact on cancer patients who are already fighting for their lives.
In a worst-case scenario, many cancer patients would succumb to their disease due to the lack of medical supplies and treatment. Even those who survived would be left with long-term effects and complications.
Rise of cancer incidence rates
Even though we cannot possibly predict the exact impact of nuclear winter on cancer risk and incidence rates, we can make some educated guesses.
The rise in cancer incidence rates would be due to several factors.
- Increased exposure to ionizing radiation
In terms of radiation exposure, it is well established that ionizing radiation can cause cancer.
There are two types of ionizing radiation: natural and manufactured. Natural sources of ionizing radiation include radon gas, cosmic rays, and radioactive elements in the soil. Manufactured sources include medical procedures (such as X-rays), nuclear power plants, and nuclear warheads.
In a nuclear warfare scenario, there would be a significant increase in exposure to ionizing radiation from the nuclear explosions themselves, as well as from the radioactive fallout that would fall on earth. This increased exposure would result in a drastic increase in cancer incidence rates.
The most prevalent cancer types that develop as a result of radioactive fallout are thyroid cancer and leukemias. However, this does not mean that other incidence rates of cancer types would not be affected. Any cancer type could potentially develop from radiation exposure.
Depending on the amount of radiation exposure, the effects of ionizing radiation on cancer incidence rates could be seen anywhere from a few years to several decades after the initial exposure.
- Ozone depletion
Another critical effect of nuclear winter would be the depletion of the ozone layer.
The ozone layer is a layer of gas that protects the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This UV radiation can cause skin cancer, cataracts, and other health problems.
A nuclear explosion releases large amounts of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere. These nitrogen oxides break down ozone molecules, causing the ozone layer to thin out.
The already-thinned ozone layer would be further depleted in a nuclear winter scenario, leaving the earth’s surface exposed to harmful ultraviolet radiation. While the depletion of the ozone layer would be a global phenomenon, the areas closest to the nuclear explosions would be most affected.
This increased exposure to UV radiation would lead to a rise in cancer incidence rates, particularly for skin cancer.
- Air pollution
Aside from the contamination of air, water, and soil with radioactive material, a nuclear winter would also cause a massive increase in air pollution.
The smoke and soot launched into the atmosphere from the nuclear detonations would be spread worldwide by the winds. This would cause a drastic decrease in air quality globally.
The effects of air pollution on cancer incidence rates are well-established. Studies have shown that long-term exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer, throat cancer, and other types of cancer.
We could expect to see a significant rise in cancer incidence rates in a nuclear winter scenario due to air pollution.
Small vs big nuclear war
Does it matter whether nuclear war is local (“small”) or global (“big”)?
The effects of nuclear winter would be most severe in the case of a global nuclear war, in which large numbers of nuclear weapons are detonated.
In a smaller-scale nuclear war, the number of nuclear detonations would be limited, and the effects may not be as severe. However, it is important to note that even a “small” nuclear war would likely cause devastating global consequences, including a significant increase in cancer incidence rates.
In short, a nuclear winter would have several devastating effects on cancer incidence and survival rates. The most notable effects would be an increase in exposure to ionizing radiation, the depletion of the ozone layer, and air pollution. All of these factors would lead to a rise in cancer incidence rates globally.
We also cannot underestimate the severe lack of food, water, and medical supplies that would be available in the aftermath of a nuclear winter. These shortages would make it difficult to treat cancer patients, and many would likely die as a result.
The bottom line is that a nuclear winter would be a catastrophe for the entire population, especially cancer patients and survivors alike. If we want to avoid such a fate, it is imperative that we do everything we can to prevent a nuclear war from happening.
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