In July of 1945, the U.S. government detonated the world’s first nuclear bomb, ushering in the Atomic Age. Initially, the nature and severity of the blasts were kept under wraps, but the photography industry would eventually be given closed door access to certain details, all because of some radioactive corn.In 1946, Kodak customers began complaining that their film was foggy upon being developed. Photographic film is highly sensitive to radioactive energy (this is why you should request a hand examination when going through airport security with film). Kodak investigated the issue and eventually traced the source of the problem back to corn husks from Indiana that were being used as padding to ship materials. The husks had been contaminated by Iodine-131. I-131 is a radioactive isotope produced during plutonium fission; Kodak’s team eventually connected the dots and realized that Indiana had been exposed to fallout from the Trinity Test, indicating that radioactive iodine had possibly entered the food chain and that fallout was clearly reaching far and wide. I-131 can cause thyroid cancer, particularly in children (indeed, 75,000 cases of cancer were linked to American atomic tests during the first two decades of the Atomic Age). Iodine supplements are an easy and effective remedy. Whether by choice or by order of the government, Kodak remained silent, however, and the public was not made aware of the risk.
This wasn’t the end, however. In 1951, the U.S. began more tests on continental soil, and after the Frenchman Flat test in Nevada, Kodak detected unusually high levels of radiation across the country in Rochester, N.Y. After complaining to both the National Association of Photographic Manufacturers and the Atomic Energy Commission and being dismissed, the company threatened to sue the government. The government eventually acquiesced and agreed to give Kodak and other manufacturers advance notice of tests, as well as predicted fallout patterns — information that could have potentially prevented thousands of cancers cases. It was part of several government programs that knowingly and secretly sacrificed human well-being for the sake of science during the middle of the 1900s. It would not be until a decade after photographic manufacturers were made privy to the details of these tests that the general public would be granted the same privilege.