By Donna Jean MacKinnon
Toronto Star Staff Reporter
May 3, 1998
Dr. Rosalie Bertell perches on a wooden chair in her small
Harbourfront apartment. Animated, her eyes bright, she has a
no-nonsense look on her face.
Bertell has been a Grey Nun for 50 years and, along the way, earned
a doctorate in biometry and has written books about radiation and
its effect on the health of humanity and Planet Earth.
No Immediate Danger: Prognosis For A Radioactive Earth has been
translated into four languages and is about to come out in Russian.
Bertell, an environmental epidemiologist, is neither a recluse nor a
denizen of the Ivory Tower. She is an activist and a self-confessed
After the Bhopal disaster in 1984, Bertell directed the
International Medical Commission investigating the effects of the
Union Carbide chemical spill that contributed to some 15,000 deaths.
After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 resulted in 31 dead and
forced the evacuation of 135,000, Bertell helped convene a tribunal
to fight for the rights of those victims.
She has written reports on everything from radiation-related health
problems, experienced by the Rongelap people after bomb testing in
the Marshall Islands, to the effects of the Pickering nuclear plant
on the health of local children.
In 1990, Bertell took on Ontario Hydro when it published "slick''
booklets outlining a 25-year plan with no mention of potential
"We challenged them and ended up producing five volumes on what they
should have known,'' says Bertell.
The "we'' are Bertell and the 300 members of the International
Institute of Concern for Public Health, a hard-hitting environmental
organization formed in 1984.
Bertell, who retired "in theory'' in 1994, is currently president of
the institute where her mission is to integrate influential people,
with environmental concerns, into a cohesive force so that they can
lobby governments as a block.
"I'm connected to the world by E-mail and carry stories from one
international group to another,'' explains Bertell, as the fax
machine trills in her tiny office.
At 69, Bertell has a few pet peeves. She laments that once air and
water are polluted, no one has a choice in the matter. She also
objects to medical testing of vaccines only on the "standard
Caucasian man, 20 to 30,'' rather than a broad spectrum of people.
Bertell also has a few things to say about El Nino.
"It's the military who have messed up our weather and ozone,'' she
maintains. ``They blamed it on Mt. Pinatubo and now El Nino. Where
did that come from all of a sudden? Everybody repeats El Nino and
accepts it. It's public relations: not scientific data.''
Bertell admits she is a feminist who believes that if women had more
decision-making power, the world would be a better place. At the
1995 Forum on Women in Beijing, Bertell alerted delegates to the
dangers of military-developed chemicals and their long-term impact
She identified chlorines as the worst offenders on the planet.
Developed during World War I, chlorine did not exist in the
atmosphere until then. Now there is evidence that one class of
chlorines has "demasculinized and defeminized'' birds and fish, and
Bertell warns that studies on the implications for human sexuality
and reproduction have just begun.
Bertell is routinely called a Cassandra and denounced by the nuclear
industry. But she firmly maintains they and military policy makers
are the world's main polluters.
Becoming a thorn-in-the-side of power mongers wasn't an easy path
for Bertell. She was born in Buffalo, the daughter of a Canadian
mother and American father. Paul Bertell was president of the
Standard Mirror Co. and the inventor of the day-night auto mirror.
"My father never finished high school, but taught himself optics,'' says
Bertell. "Later he delighted in my success in math and
everything I did.''
After Bertell earned a B.A. in 1951 from Buffalo's Marguerite
D'Youville College in Buffalo (named for the only Canadian-born
saint), she joined the Carmelites and stayed until a heart attack,
five years later, forced her to leave.
"We plowed by hand and did hard physical work - laid cement and
threaded pipes four feet underground. I learned a lot about women's
self-sufficiency. But I was also a worry wart,'' she admits.
During her convalescence, Bertell discovered a knack for mathematics
and later earned a degree in that subject. Then in 1957, at 29,
Bertell joined the Grey Nuns.
"The religious life was right for me. My family has a long Christian
history. I'm named after a great aunt who was a Daughter of Charity
and a pharmacist.''
Her religious commitment, Bertell adds, is like a marriage:
Sometimes there are interpersonal problems, but they get worked out.
Although a high-profile public figure, Bertell has never forsaken
her order and like all nuns, her earnings go to a community pot -
the Mother House - which doles out living expenses.
In the '60s, Bertell attended the Catholic University of America in
Washington and graduated with a Doctorate in Biometry - the science
of biological measurement. "In those days it was a new field
and there were 320 openings for every graduate. It was later filled
up by aerospace people when factories closed down.''
Bertell landed a research job in Buffalo at the Roswell Park Cancer
Institute, the world's first cancer research facility. While at the
Roswell, Bertell also taught math at D'Youville College.
Drained by her dual workload, Bertell suffered a second heart attack
in 1972 and while recuperating, she "stumbled'' on to Hiroshima and
Nagasaki bomb data. "I spent 10 years in radiation data and
emerged as the foremost expert in the field,'' says Bertell.
A public meeting in Buffalo became a watershed in Bertell's life.
Niagara County wanted to build a nuclear plant on a site next door
to farms producing Gerber's Baby Food and people were concerned.
Bertell recalls her first experience with nuclear power:
"There were only seats on stage for the five nuclear men. Their
message was that radiation was like an x-ray and, obviously, caused
no harm. It all irked me. I was the first citizen up to the mike and
I insisted the nuclear men give up their seats. I didn't realize the
concerned citizens were all women until we replaced the men.''
In the end, the female protesters succeeded in getting a moratorium
on the plant - the first one in the United States against the
"Soon I was caught in the anti-nuclear network and, because I had a
data base of medical information, I was constantly asked to speak,''
Bertell says. "I began to realize it was routine for the
military to release radiation and that it also set radiation
Meanwhile, ``tension was high'' at the Roswell Institute, which
"favoured'' the nuclear industry because it supplied research
"Scientists are economic prisoners. I was told what I could say, so
I quit,'' says Bertell, with the air of someone who has just licked
the school bully.
After dropping out in June, 1975, Bertell went to a Carmelite
Monastery in Vermont and spent a year in contemplative prayer and
considering her activism.
"There was no spiritual resistance. So I accepted, it was a calling
and the crusade was on,'' explains Bertell.
When Bertell testified before the U.S. Congress on the subject of
medical x-rays, she succeeded in stopping x-rays in shoe stores and
annual medical x-rays in schools and at work.
Since then Bertell has endured a breakneck schedule. ("People find
me. I never advertise.'') Recent speaking engagements included a
conference on low-level radiation exposure in Milan, a session of
the United Nations in Geneva and the World Conference on Breast
Cancer in Kingston, Ont.
In January, Bertell travelled to a meeting of scientists in Brussels
where she advised on protecting workers against ionizing radiation.
She also spoke at the European Parliament in a bid to help Europe
set up radiation protection standards for workers.
In February, Bertell completed a "reconstruction'' for workers
affected after three nuclear bombs were tested in Alaska. Bertell's
model will help the men, exposed to radiation, get help with medical
expenses from the U.S. government.
Bertell currently serves on the U.S.-Canada International Joint
Commission Nuclear Task Force and is an adviser to Health Canada on
the state of the Great Lakes. She has also worked on the
relationship between diabetes, cancer and leukemia and radiation.
And Bertell has a thought-provoking view of obesity.
"It's not just junk food. It's well-known that radioactive iodine in
North American's atmosphere slows down the thyroid gland and that
contributes to (being) overweight.''
Bertell declares it's all about money. "War and money make the
world go around. When you have money, you have to be prepared to go
to war to protect it and that is the main concern of corporations
This may sound cynical coming from a nun, but Bertell snaps, "Once
your eyes are open, you can't close them again.''
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