The White House Vs. Radiation Science & Health

Experts at the US 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 is 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 “Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation-7” (BEIR VII), where it emphatically said “no.” As they had done many times before, the NAS reported that any radiation exposure, no matter how slight carries a risk of causing cancer or other illnesses.

The NAS panel that produced BEIR-VII “could not ignore the current body of scientific studies that are now recognizing harmful and hitherto unpredicted effects at very low doses of radiation,” said Cindy Folkers at Nuclear Information & Resource Service in Takoma Park, MD.

But like the handfull of scientists who stand against the 98% and say climate change is a hoax, there are a couple of nuclear-happy quacks who say radiation exposure is good for us. The President wants us to believe them. (Time magazine: “Trump Administration Moving to Weaken EPA Radiation Regulations”)

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 nuclear industry-sponsored researchers claim that low doses of radiation can act like inoculations. This “hormesis” theory was explicitly rejected by the NAS panel. Dr. Peter Crane, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission Counsel told the New York Times in 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 Research in 2005 and reported in the journal Science was 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).”

In 2002, Roger Clark, President of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), warned 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.”

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 2015, a landmark international study reported in The Lancet Hematology presented “strong evidence of positive associations between protracted low-dose radiation exposure and leukemia.” The journal Nature said 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 the tobacco hucksters, the 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 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 decades: “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 industrial releases or the medical uses of radiation makes the same warning -- based on BEIR-VII.

An often ignored fact is that internal contamination is far more dangerous than the same exposure outside the body. Dr. Chris Busby, the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, compares the two this way: “Think of being external 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 they are vented, dumped or leaked, radioactive materials contaminate soil, water, rainfall and food, and 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, “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. In 1989, the National Academy’s BEIR-Five quadrupled the 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. 

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.