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Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
August 29, 2007

Radiation Phobia

A Treatment Primer

It's been a while since I posted anything on radiation hormesis. It is well-established in chemical toxicology that substances which become harmful and eventually lethal in high doses can be beneficial, or even essential to health, in low doses. For over 25 years evidence has been mounting that this is true also for ionizing radiation. But very little information reaches the public, and regulatory authorities stick rigidly to the dogma known as the Linear Non-Threshold Theory (LNT), according to which the damage known to occur at high-doses is pro-rated down into the low-dose range, where no harmful effects have ever actually been observed. Hence arises the oft-repeated "no-dose-is-safe" mantra, not as a statement of fact rooted in evidence, but of faith in a statisical inference based on an assumption. In Underexposed: What if Radiation Is Actually Good for You? (Laissez-Faire Books, 2005), Ed Hiserodt provides a rich compilation of data, studies, and case histories, along with introductions to such topics as the mechanics of hormesis and cellular DNA repair, supporting the case that the assumption is wrong.

To cite one of the illustrations he gives, imagine it to have been established that a fall of 100 feet onto concrete will be fatal 100% of the time. For less extreme cases, it might be not unreasonable to expect that fifty-foot falls will be fatal 50% of the time, and falls of 25 feet, 25% of the time. Pursuing the same logic all the way down to zero leads to the conclusion that a fall of one inch should be about 0.1% lethal, killing 10 out of 10,000 people who roll off a rubber mat on a poolside terrace. Yet this is the way that the lurid projections we see of deaths to be expected from various exposures to radiation are arrived at. Compounding further the dubiousness of such a process is the notion of "collective dose," whereby lethal consequences are teased out of insignificant per-person dosages by applying them across a sufficiently large population. On this basis, if 100 aspirin tablets are lethal, then of 100 people taking one tablet each, one should be expected to die. Through this kind of reasoning, a decision was taken to clean up the site at Hanford in Washington at a cost of $85 billion, to protect the population from the equivalent of a "fall" measuring two-tenths of an inch.

Hiserodt shows that such obsession for fighting imaginary risks is not only wasteful but does more harm than good. The categories of examples he presents, each given a separate chapter, are:
  • Experiments with mice, starting with the first improvised investigation carried out under the duress of the Manhattan Project, which showed to everyone's surprise that the test group that breathed uranium dust lived longer and were happier (i.e. had a better reproductive history) than the unexposed controls.
  • Data from lower-exposure A-bomb victims, who not only experienced 40% less cancers than predicted by LNT, but on average outlived comparable unexposed survivors.
  • Studies of workers in power plants and other nuclear facilities. Figures from 15,000 individuals show a 40% reduction in cancer mortality. (Imagine the hysteria if the result were the other way around!)
  • Data from geographical areas with differing natural background radiation. Higher levels consistently correlate with greater longevity and improved health.
  • Hormetic effects seen in medical treatment statistics. For example, in the treatment of hyperthyroidism, patients given radioactive iodine-131 show 1/3 the cancer rate of those treated with drugs, and 1/4 the rate of those who underwent surgery.
  • One of the most comprehensive studies, undertaken by Johns Hopkins University, of over 28,000 shipyard workers. Those employed in radiation environments experienced a reduction of 26% in deaths from all causes, indicating not only a hormetic effect specific to radiation-associated cancers, but general stimulation of the entire immune system.
  • A study of radon effects in over 1700 U.S. counties showing a correlation between radon and lung cancer comparable to that between lung cancer and cigarette smoking. But the correlation is the other way around--the more radon, the lower the cancer rate.
Radiation phobia is probably the single biggest obstacle to solving the energy "crisis" with a safe and reliable technology that has been available and working for fifty years. By means of breeder reactors, the thorium that exists at 2.5 tons per square mile in the first foot of depth just about anywhere on the Earth's surface could supply today's needs for 100,000 years. Hiserodt also describes how, if the irrationality were overcome, designs that exist right now could open the way to small-scale reactors the size of cookie jars, operable by local communities, or even sealed units suitable for private residences--which makes much more sense than hare-brained schemes for rooftop skating rinks that need to be cleared of winter snow and leaves, and basement bombs in the form of piano-size storage batteries. Also, vehicles pre-fueled at the factory for twenty years of use. (Where do the advocates of electric cars think the power is going to come from to charge them? Hydrogen is an energy storage medium, not a source. A lot of energy is needed to separate it from the compounds in which it naturally occurs. It would take about a dozen large--1,000MW--power plants to replace the gas and diesel fuel used in the Los Angeles area alone.)

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