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WILLIAM TUCKER: Will the Dangers of Radiation Exposure Ever Make Sense?

By William Tucker

You have to wonder how there can be a scientific issue of extreme public importance where the disputing parties differ by about 10,000 orders of magnitude.

That’s the way things stand over the question of whether low doses of radiation are harmful and whether there have serious health effects from Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Jim Conca, writing in Forbes, thought the matter had been settled a few weeks ago. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation – UNSCEAR – had just brought out its annual report.  For the first time since World War II, UNSCEAR stated specifically that it does not make sense to try to project the effects of high doses of radiation down to the very low levels.  Here’s what the report had to say:

In general, increases in the incidence of health effects in populations cannot be attributed reliably to chronic exposure to radiation at levels that are typical of the global average background levels of radiation.  This is because of the uncertainties associated with the assessment of risks at low does, the current absence of radiation-specific biomarkers for health effects and the insufficient statistical power of epidemiological studies.  Therefore the Scientific Committee does not recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels.  [Emphasis added]

There it is.  The nuclear community has been waiting for such an admission for almost half a century.  In the 1980s, the nuclear industry was forced to spend billions of dollars in order to reduce the emissions at the property line of a nuclear reactor from 5 millirems per year to 1 millirem.   All this was performed in communities where the normal background levels stand at anywhere from 200 to 500 millirems.  It was about the equivalent of paying $1 billion to prevent someone from smoking a single cigarette in your living room.

The evidence against the linear no-threshold (LNT) hypothesis is overwhelming.  There has never been any data to support it.  Evidence from Japanese bomb survivors shows a clear dose-response relationship down to 10 rems.  Below that the incidence disappears against the background noise of normal cancer rates.  There are plenty of studies showing the body has repair mechanisms that can handle low doses of radiation or is even strengthened by them.  One recent study at Berkeley actually filmed damage cells migrating to the repair sites within 30 seconds of exposure. Another showed that mice exposed to 400 times natural background showed no DNA damage.

So you’d think the UNSCEAR report might finally make a small dent in hysteria about nuclear radiation.  But no, Conca’s two columns have unleashed a firestorm of criticism from people claiming there is all kinds of evidence that Chernobyl and Fukushima have already wreaked harm on nearby populations.  Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina claims to have discovered that birds living in the Chernobyl evacuation zone have smaller brains due to low levels of antioxidants. Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki from the University of South Alabama spent ten years investigating newborn birth in the Ukraine and found all kinds of spinal and nervous system defects, including an increased incidence of Siamese twins.  Then there was a study just a month ago where a Japanese doctor claims that 41 percent of 57,000 children have tested positive for early signs of possible thyroid cancer, and four out of five evacuees are experiencing thyroid abnormalities.”

I have no trouble dismissing Greenpeace’s wild claim that 985,000 people have already died from Chernobyl.  Nor do I have any difficulty in casting a skeptical eye on the notorious New York Academy of Sciences publication, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.  I recall opening that volume and immediately discovering a study by the notorious Dr. Ernest Sternglass, who used to command so much attention in the 1990s showing that every blip in cancer rates around the country was a result of nuclear fallout.  This time Sternglass was claiming that an uptick in breast cancer rates in Connecticut in the 1990s must have been due to Chernobyl.

Still, I must admit, some of these studies send my head spinning.  Are all these people just making stuff up?  Is it that they don’t know how to establish control groups?  Can a doctor from Alabama really spend ten years monitoring all newborn babies in the Ukraine and not know how to interpret his own data?

In the end, I have to go back to my own experience.  In 2006 I spend a week sitting in the Free Enterprise Radon Mine in Boulder, Montana, absorbing 400 times the EPA’s “action level” of radon gas.  Radon spas have long been the rage in Europe and had their heyday in the United States for awhile until the EPA began its scorched earth campaign against radon in the 1990s.  (Apparently frustrated because it couldn’t regulate cigarettes, the EPA now attributes 20 percent of lung cancers to household radon.)  

At Free Enterprise I met people who had been coming to the mine every summer for 25 years to treat arthritis and other ills.  Some claimed to have arrived in wheelchairs.  There was one memorable delegation of Amish with white beards and glistening teeth who had taken the train all the way from Pennsylvania because their religion doesn‘t allow them to travel by air.  Nevertheless, they made the trip to Boulder every summer to brush up on their health.  Patricia Davis, whose family has owned the mine since the 1950s, says they have never been sued in all that time.  I noticed she was one of the first people to congratulate Conca on his article.

I have no way of confirming whether the rate of spinal bifida in the Ukraine is above what is to be expected or whether the number of children with early signs of possible thyroid cancer in Japan is outside the norm.  Not having yet experienced any ill effects from my own deadly exposure to radon, however, I can’t help but thinking that the doctrine holding even the smallest doses of radiation to be dangerous is highly suspect.