Radiation good for your health
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RADIATION?
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 feet||60|
|Bodily internal (potassium & carbon)||25|
|Food and water intake||22|
|Air you breathe||2|
|Coast-coast jet flight||2|
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.