Experts at the National Academies of Science settled a big question in 2005, and the president’s business friends don’t like the answer. Is there a dose of radiation so low that it is harmless? (Ionizing radiation is the alpha and beta particles, and the neutron, gamma and X-rays given off by radioactive materials in medicine, the military, industry, and reactor operations.) The NAS published its answer in its seventh edition of “Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation” (BEIR-VII), where it emphatically said: “No. There’s not safe dose.” As they had done many times before, the NAS concluded that any radiation exposure, no matter how slight, carries a risk of causing cancer or other illnesses.
But like the handful of scientists who stand against the 98% and say climate change is not caused by industrialism, there are a couple of nuclear-happy quacks who say radiation exposure is good for us. The President wants us to believe them.
Like scientists in the tobacco industry who conned millions and even got company CEOs to lie to Congress about their knowledge of cigarette hazards, some industry-friendly researchers claim that low doses of radiation are harmless and could even act like inoculations. This “hormesis” theory was explicitly rejected in BEIR-VII. Dr. Peter Crane, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission attorney told the New York Times in Sept. 2015, “[T]he National Academies of Science, along with the rest of mainstream scientific authority, regard hormesis as wholly without merit.” A separate study published in Radiation Researchin 2005 and reported in the journal Sciencewas said to be “the latest blow to the [hormesis] notion that there is a threshold of exposure to radiation below which there is no health threat (and there might even be a benefit).”
Trying to Save the Industry Billions
In 2002, Roger Clark, President of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), warned in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that “Some people think that too much money is being spent to achieve low levels of residual contamination.” They want, “a threshold in the dose-response relationship in order to reduce expenditure,” Clark said.
As Science reported in 1999, “Billions of dollars are at stake. Stricter standards could increase the amount that agencies and industries must spend to clean up radioactive waste and protect workers.” In June 2015, a landmark international study reported in The Lancet Haematologypresented “strong evidence of positive associations between protracted low-dose radiation exposure and leukemia.” The journal Naturesaid of the study: “The finding … scuppers the popular idea that there might be a threshold dose below which radiation is harmless — and provides scientists with some hard numbers to quantify the risks of everyday exposures.”
Now, as with climate change deniers and tobacco hucksters, fringe scientists are singing the de-regulation song that Trump’s industrialists wants to hear. If weakened radiation exposure limits are approved by Congress, the nuclear industry will save billions and its profit margins could grow as fast as lung tumors.
The public and the scientific community must fight back. There is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation. Even the smallest radiation exposures have cellular-level effects. The EPA website has said for years: “Based on current scientific evidence, any exposure to radiation can be harmful (or can increase the risk of cancer)… In other words, it is assumed that no radiation exposure is completely risk free.” Every US government agency that regulates radiation releases or its medical use makes the same warning — based on BEIR-VII (BEIR-VI, BEIR-V, etc.) In 1989, the National Academy’s BEIR-V quadrupledthe risk of cancer from low-dose radiation exposures, and warned explicitly about “a much greater danger” of mental retardation among babies exposed in the womb to radiation.
An under-reported concern about radiation is the fact that internal contamination is far more dangerous than the same exposure outside the body.
In Oct. 2004, the British government’s Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters reported that low-level radiation from nuclear reactors may be up to 10 times more hazardous when ingested or inhaled than previously estimated. Dr. Chris Busby, the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, compares the two harms this way: “Externally, think of exposure like being warmed before a glowing fireplace. Internally, think of taking a hot coal from that fire and popping it into your mouth.”
When radioactive materials are vented, dumped or leaked, they contaminate soil, water, rainfall and food, and they can then be inhaled or ingested. Some persist in the environment for centuries. Tritium (radioactive hydrogen) is released to the air and to bodies of water by reactors and nuclear wastes. It persists for 120 years. Dr. Gordon Edwards of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility wrote Sept. 30 that, “Tritium gets built right into the body’s organic molecules, including DNA molecules. Precisely because tritium is so difficult to control, and so easily dispersed into the air and the water around nuclear facilities, industry experts advocate for lax standards and permissive practices regarding release.”
Dozens of studies indicate that low doses of radiation given over long periods of time are far more dangerous than the industry and the government claim. Infant mortality rates and childhood leukemia rates both increase in areas downwind from operating reactors. By 1999, the government finally admitted that radiation exposures endured for years by nuclear weapons workers had made them sick, contrary to decades of repeated assurances that the doses were harmless.
We all have a responsibility to reject Trump’s nuclear bailout which would expose everyone to more radiation, and instead to demand a robust strengthening of radiation protection regulations particularly with respect to infants and children.