A FEW MONTHS AGO, in a smart-alecky mood, I sent the following letter to the White House (cc: Nuclear Regulatory Commission): "Dear Rosalynn Carter,
"Before I left the house the other day I was checking over my list of errands (put up the wash, drop Jenny's shoes off for taps, stop at the bakery and the library, pick up the shoes, and that should bring me back to the laundromat just in time to switch the clothes to the dryer). As I was turning off the light -- I am always energy conscious -- I seemed to hear my mother's voice repeating words heard so often as a child: "As long as you're going, you might as well take out the garbage." Suddenly, I saw how our government could solve two great problems at once. Without any further introduction here is my idea, which I hope you will pass along to your husband, President Carter.
"We are all aware of the plight of the elderly. First, the need for supplemental income, and second, perhaps more important, the need to feel like contributing members of society. At the same time many of us are becoming aware of the spread of cancer from radiation and chemicals in factories.
"In view of these hazards and to solve the underemployment of the elderly, I propose that senior citizens should be offered part-time work with nuclear wastes and other carcinogens.
"The advantages of this plan will be obvious. First, retired people are not likely to conceive children. This eliminates the problem of mutations due to radiation.
"Secondly, many of the cancers we now hear about develop slowly over 15 or 20 years. Employing the elderly would make it unnecessary to be concerned with such long-term effects.
"Perhaps as we learn more about the incubation period for these substances we can match each senior's age and life expectancy to the particular carcinogen. This would certainly be cheaper than the costly safety precautions or even more costly medical care we now expend on younger workers in the otherwise valuable nuclear and chemical industries.
"But economy is not my main consideration. For those of us concerned with the good society, the real value of this plan is to open up meaningful post-retirement opportunities. What better way to provide senior citizens with a feeling of self-worth and involvement than to offer them a chance for truly invaluable service to society?
"And what better way for society to solve two great problems at once? Hiring older people to work with nuclear wastes seems as simple and obvious to this housewife as sewing while you're watching television. It's as basic as my mother's wise precept: "As long as you're going, you might as well take out the garbage." "Sincerely, "mrs. Betty S. Salop"
Eventually Mrs. Carter sent Mrs. Salop the following courteous and noncommital answer:
"Thank you for your letter. It was very thoughtful of you to take the time to share your views with me. Jimmy joins me in sending our best wishes. "Rosalynn Carter"
However, the Director of the Division of Waste Management at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave Betty Salop's suggestion more careful consideration. "Dear Mrs. Salop:
"Thank you for your letter of March 8, 1980, proposing to give underemployed senior citizens second careers in nuclear waste management. As an equal opportunity employer, we cannot discriminate for or against any person or group of persons because of age, sex, or color, and therefore, could not by law establish the kind of program for senior citizens that you have proposed. We appreciate you having taken the trouble to send us your thoughts, however, and would be pleased to entertain any further suggestions you may have in the future. "Sincerely, "John B. Martin, "Director Division of Waste Management"
I was about to toss the whole correspondence away when a friend showed me an old clipping from the New York Times:
"Dr. John H. Weisburger, vice president for research of the American Health Foundation in New York, suggested in 1977 that perhaps one way to avoid problems caused by work with cancer-causing substances was to hire older people.
"'We should consider dosage and time together when selecting individuals where exposure to carcinogens might occur,' he wrote in Chemtech, the magazine of the American Chemical Society. 'In older persons, low total doses would be possible over the remaining years of employment since the total lifespan for cancer development would be limited.'"
Dr. Weisburger's November 1977 Chemtech article, "Cancer Prevention," points out that, in contrast to cancers generated by nutrition, smoking, etc., the causes of occupational cancers can usually be definitively established, making preventive measures quite successful. "In some instances," he writes, "this involves total elimination of the carcinogenic factor by omitting production." However, in cases where this is not possible, and some worker exposure is unavoidable, Dr. Weisburger volunteers older workers for the job: e
"In view of a number of lines of evidence . . . on the lesser sensitivity of older individuals to chemical carcinogens, and considering the latent period required for overt cancer appearance, we must select older individuals, typically above age 45, for employment in situations where contact with carcinogens might occur."
Next I discovered that Arthur Cherkin, a specialist on aging and a biochemist with the Veteran's Administration Center in Sepulveda, Calif., had made the same suggestion. In a letter to Chemical and Engineering News (Nov. 12, 1979) Cherkin says he learned from a TV documentary that the practice in nuclear power plants of employing "temporary help" when exposure to radiation is unavoidable may be "a necessary evil under present circumstances," and suggests hiring the oldest qualified applicants for such evil employment. This would reduce the "risk factor" of radiation exposure because the older workers produce fewer offspring and statistically fewer workers would survive long enough to get one of those cancers that has a latency period of 20 years or more.
By this time was ashamed of my original letter. Mrs. Betty Salop was an invention to fool the president's wife. In fact, though, I fooled myself. Suggestions like this don't come from the people who take care of children, shoe repairs, and dinners. No, these crackpot schemes come camouflaged with risk tables and cost-benefit ratios. I should instead have invented a mad systems analyst.
However, I have become more and more frightened to write down any of the efficient suggestions he might develop. Who would dare commit to paper these days a plan to fatten and eat Cambodian babies? Ounce for ounce it might just make too much sense.