Bulletin Board
Rants, Raves, Interesting Science & Awful Puns
November 22, 1997

"Vitamin R"

Radiation good for your health


I've had a few people ask how I justify my support for nuclear energy in view of the dreaded radiation hazard. A good way to respond, I thought, might be by reproducing the following extract from a proposal for a new book dealing with popular scientific misconceptions, which is currently with my agent.

Imagine the consequences if the dogma upon which our policies for regulating and protecting against low-level ionizing radiation--that "no level is safe"; any exposure however small, is damaging to health -- were shown to be incorrect. The hundreds of thousands of excess cancers predicted to occur eventually from Chernobyl could be consigned to the trash can. Practically the entire EPA industry for imposing standards and mandating cleanups involving low-level radiation would be closed down. A major weapon in the arsenal for the war on nuclear power would go away.

At levels encountered ordinarily -- i.e. excluding bomb victims, Chernobyl firefighters, and medical patients subjected to massive doses, usually as a last resort in terminal situations -- nothing conclusive is actually observed at all. Low-level effects are inferred by taking a high-level dose where the effect is measurable, and assuming that it connects to the zero-point (zero dose, therefore zero effect) as a straight line. From this, one can read off the effects that low levels would have if this assumed relationship were true. This is like saying that since a temperature of 100 deg C is lethal, a rise however small must produce some ill effect. In the absence of better information, this can make sense for setting safety standards, where one prefers to err on the side of caution. But when it becomes interpreted as fact, the consequences can get out of hand.

In the case of radiation, the result is then postulated to apply even when the dose is distributed across a population. By the same reasoning, exposing a hundred people all to a rise of 1 deg C could be expected to result in one death (or two if a 50 deg C rise were fatal, and so on).

But research that has been known to the health and radiation physics community for many years shows conclusively that this model is wrong.

In 1980, Professor T.D. Luckey, a biochemist at the University of Missouri, published a study, entitled Hormesis With Ionizing Radiation (CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL; also in Japanese, Soft Science Inc., Tokyo), of over 1200 experiments dating back to the turn of the century reporting the effects of low-level radiation on biota ranging from viruses and bacteria through various plants and animals up to vertebrates. He found that, by all the criteria normally used to judge the well-being of living things, modest increases of radiation above the natural background make life better: they grow bigger and faster; they live longer; they get sick less often and recover sooner; they produce more offspring, more of which survive. The phenomenon of "hormesis"--whereby things that become harmful at high concentration are actually beneficial in small doses--is established in chemical toxicology. The effect is believed to result from stimulation and exercising of the natural immune system. What Luckey showed was that it applies also to radiation.

Some further facts that are consistent with this conclusion:

  • Iowa, the state that the EPA found as having the highest average level of radon in the home, also has below-average cancer incidence. The mountain states, with double the radiation background of the US as a whole, show a cancer rate way below Iowa's. Data from a study of 1729 U.S. counties shows the correlation between radon and lung cancer mortality to be about the same as for cigarette smoking; except that it's negative: the more radiation, the less cancer.
  • The same extends worldwide. The waters of such European spas as Lourdes, Bath, and Bad Gastein, known for their beneficial health effects since Roman times, all have high radioactivity levels. Areas noted for high radiation backgrounds, such as the Caucasus, southwest England, northwest India, have high longevity and low cancer incidence.
  • British data on over 10,000 UK Atomic Energy Authority workers show cancer mortality to be 22% below the national average. For Canada the figure is 33%. (Imagine the hysteria if those numbers were the other way around!)

It appears, however, that the political consequences of announcing this to a public that has been saturated with contrary propaganda for over 20 years would be unacceptable. Although papers and conferences on radiation hormesis are now regular features of the scientific scene, they are ignored by the lawmakers and regulatory authorities. The continuing assumption of proportionate damage by tiny doses contradicts everything that has been discovered about cell metabolism and the mechanism of DNA repair since the early sixties.

If a little extra radiation is good for you, what optimum dose should our local health-food store recommend? Work reported from Japan puts it roughly at two "millirems," per day. That's about a tenth of a dental X-ray, or one coast-to-coast jet flight, or a year's worth of standing beside a nuclear plant. For comparison, the level where the net effect becomes harmful is around two rems per day; 50 (note, we're talking rems now, not millirems) causes chronic radiation sickness; 100 is lethal.

Perhaps tablets for those who don't get enough regular exposure wouldn't be a bad idea. A good way to use radioactive waste might be to bury it under radon-deficient homes. And perhaps cereal manufacturers should be required to state on their boxes the percentage of the daily dietary requirement that a portion of their product contributes. After all, if radiation is essential for health in minimum, regular amounts, it meets the accepted definition of a vitamin!

As a further note to put things in perspective, her are some figures comparing radiation exposures experienced by the average American from various sources, natural and man-made.

Annual estimated doses in millirems per year:

Ground under your feet60
Cosmic rays40
Bodily internal (potassium & carbon)25
Food and water intake22
Weapons fallout5
Air you breathe2
Coast-coast jet flight2
Nuclear industry0.01

All rocks contain traces of uranium. Radiation from the granite used in Grand Central Station exceeds the NRC limits for nuclear-plant operation. Grand Central Station wouldn't get a license as a nuclear plant. Neither would the piers of the harbor at Dun Laoghaire, near where I live in Ireland.

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