How dangerous is low-level radiation? Perhaps, much less riskier than we think.

Everyone knows that high levels of radiation are deadly. It seems that no one is certain of how much low-level radiation poses a serious health threat. It’s one of the things that makes the nuclear disaster in Japan such a cause for fear and anguish. One of the problems of assessing the risk is that it’s very hard to study low levels of radiation exposure because there are many things that contribute to people getting cancer.

In the September 13th, 201o issue of The New Yorker, noted journalist Peter Hessler, wrote a piece entitled The Uranium Widows: Why Would A Community Want To Return To Milling A Radioactive Element?. It’s about a small community in Colorado that seems overwhelmingly positive about plans to build America’s first new uranium mill in thirty years. Hessler was first skeptical about the public reception as well but after spent months researching the dangers of radiation, he reached some conclusions that surprised himself. With his permission, we’re reprinting the relevant portions of the article.  Hessler is not a nuclear scientist but he is a highly credible journalist and a meticulous researcher; he is also not a flack for the nuclear power industry. He backs up his article with a number of reliable sources.   This may not answer the question on the minds of all those in Japan and in Tokyo, but perhaps it will give some perspective.*

—The effects of high doses are well documented, largely because of a sixty-year study of nearly a hundred thousand Japanese atomic-bomb survivors. With high levels of radiation, there’s a clear linear pattern—more exposure means an incremental rise in risk. But it’s unclear whether this pattern continues into the lower-dose range, where any health effects are so small that they can’t be demonstrated by epidemiological studies. Some experts and scientific bodies, including the French Academy of Sciences, have questioned the linear model for low levels, believing that radiation may be harmless up to a certain threshold. This is a controversial idea, because it would radically change risk assessment, as well as possible solutions for the storage of nuclear waste.

United States regulations continue to follow the linear no-threshold theory. It has the benefit of being simple and safe, but it can also be misinterpreted. Because of Colorado’s elevation, a resident there receives two to three times the natural background radiation of someone who lives in New Jersey, so strictly speaking there should be an increased risk of cancer.  (In fact, Colorado cancer rates are lower.) After the Chernobyl accident, in 1986, anti-nuclear groups and scientists used the findings from the Japanese atomic-bomb survivors, extrapolated downward for the radiation levels in Europe, and predicted tens of thousands of deaths from cancer. Critics note that this is like taking a set of deaths from motorists who drove a curve at a hundred miles an hour and making the assumption that, if people slow to ten miles an hour, they’ll die at a tenth of the original rate. This is also why a hundred and twenty-seven million dollars was spent obsessively cleaning up an abandoned town whose former residents lived longer than the national average.

Even worst-case disasters reveal surprisingly small effects. In Chernobyl, dozens of emergency workers died after fighting the reactor fire, but the health impact on neighboring communities seems to be limited. After more than twenty years of extensive study, there is no consistent evidence of increased birth defects, leukemia, or most other radiation related diseases. The only public epidemic consists of high rates of thyroid cancer in children, whose glands are particularly sensitive to radiation. Fewer than ten people have died—thyroid cancer is usually treatable—although it will be years before the full impact of the epidemic is known.  But, like the accident itself, it could have been avoided entirely. The Soviet reactor lacked a containment facility, and the Communist government delayed announcing the accident.

Dr. John Boice, who founded the radiation epidemiology branch of the National Cancer Institute, spoke with Peter Hessler. Dr. Boice now teaches at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, and is also the scientific director of the International Epidemiological Institute, an independent research organization.

“The Russians could have done one thing that would have gotten rid of the epidemic of thyroid cancer,” Boice told me. “They could have said, ‘Don’t drink the milk.’ ” In surrounding areas, cows ate grass contaminated by fallout, and people fed the milk to their children. An open society probably would have responded differently; even as far back as 1957, when a fire at a badly designed British nuclear facility called Windscale released radiation, all local milk was dumped into the sea.

Boice told me that the biggest health problems from high-profile accidents are often psychological. A twenty-year study showed no consistent evidence that the low amounts of radioactivity released in the Three Mile Island accident have had a significant impact on mortality in communities around the reactor.

The World Health Organization does not classify uranium as a human carcinogen.  The walls of Grand Central Terminal are made of granite, which contains elements that produce radon; a worker there receives a larger dose of radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows a uranium mill to emit to a next-door neighbor.  Being closer to the sun—living in the mountains, flying in planes—also means more radiation. According to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, the average airline crewmember receives an annual dose of work-related radiation that is more than one and a half times higher than that of the average employee in the nuclear power industry. (Neither dose is higher than what the typical American receives from natural background radiation.) And there is no compelling evidence that low amounts of radiation cause health problems.—

★The situation at Fukushima reactor is still uncertain but hopeful. If you are close to the reactor or highly irradiated areas, you  may also find the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) FAQ on Radiation Contamination and Radiation Exposure useful as well. I don’t think that people living in Tokyo face any serious risk but for your own peace of mind, this is probably worth reading as well.

Disclosure: Peter and I grew up in the same town and were friends in high school, so there is a personal connection. I thought the article was extremely helpful and am thankful he shared it with me. Comments are welcome.

25 thoughts on “How dangerous is low-level radiation? Perhaps, much less riskier than we think.”

  1. Informative and thoughtful piece on radiation accidents. Thank you for sharing. The importance of rational debate cannot be overstated. Unfortunately when it comes to radioactivity, popular knowledge is shaped by effects of nuclear war and movie magic, both may not be a useful benchmarks for thought.

    1. There is something very frightening about radiation that makes it hard to discuss rationally. The scariest horror films are the ones where you can’t see the monster and that is what radiation is like, an invisible phantom, a ghost, the unseen menace. It makes it all the more terrifying. It would be good if knowledge trumped fear but that is not always the case. Thanks for writing in.

  2. Yes, perhaps, maybe, possibly, it might be less dangerous than we may think, just like quite, maybe, possibly we could maybe, possibly design a nuclear reactor to withstand a magnitude 7 earthquake and prevent a nuclear leak.

    1. touche! Well, we could start by building the first wave of generators that are supposed to run the cooling systems in place where they wouldn’t be flooded instead of in the basement. I’m really hoping not to be a case study in how much radiation it takes to become seriously ill. There are some things I’m happy not knowing.

    1. Thank you. It’s so hard to really assess the risks but I think the points made in the article are extremely well-made and should have a cooling effect. I’m checking out your article right now.

  3. It’s interesting to mention that coal plants are not only more harmful, but they are also more radioactive than nuclear power plants – and if I recall correctly, 60-70% of the world’s power are coal/oil power. Not to mention coal plants’ effects on the environment being more apparent due to all that smoke and ash churned out from coal plants getting into our atmosphere.

    Nuclear Plants are supposed to be safer, so long as they are maintained properly (unlike Chernobyl) and the plant’s structure can resist even the worst disasters. There are always solar and wind power, but their power output for the cost is significantly lower than nuclear plants, the same cost that can be used to fund technology to make nuclear plants even safer and find better ways to dispose nuclear waste.

  4. Great article. I can only imagine what the Japanese people are going through. It’d be one thing if it was in any other country, but in a nation where so many people clearly recall what happened 60 years ago, where horrifying stories have been passed down to other generations, the sense of horror must be incredible. I wish them the best in dealing with this issue.

  5. It’s so nice to hear a voice of reason amongst the hysteria. There is a definite lack of well researched and sourced commentaries on this issue in the western media. My husband just moved to Tokyo a week before the quake to start a post-doc, and I’m joining him permanently at the end of May (I was there temporarily as well, during the quake, but my job required me to return to the states to finish out my contract). I’ve been stunned by the panic and overreaction of my friends and family, which has been based on no real scientific understanding of how nuclear plants work, what happens in crises such as these, what the levels of radiation are in our daily lives, and so on. I had no idea the nuclear boogeyman was lurking so close to the surface of the American psyche. The knee-jerk reaction is disconcerting; caution and skepticism are always warranted, but panic based on no evidence is unhelpful. This isn’t the 1980s – we have so much more knowledge and experience now. (Although the echoes of the past are somewhat eerie – April 1986 saw both Chernobyl and U.S. airstrikes on Libya)

    At any rate, thank you for this piece – hopefully it will help alleviate fears of many around me. We’ve been looking forward to our move to Japan for some time (and are heartbroken by the current tragedy), and from what little I experienced, I really loved Tokyo – you couldn’t pry my husband away from there now.

    1. Jessica-sama
      There is definitely a dearth of well-researched material or material that isn’t written by someone with a hidden agenda. After reading the whole article, I felt a lot more at ease with the current situation. Tokyo is very far from Fukushima Prefecture. My heart goes out to the people who live there or are still trapped near the reactor.

  6. Unfortunately, neither the US government, nor any entity funded by the US government (or just about any government) is a truly reliable source of information.

    The NIH, CDC, WHO, NCRI, NCI and EIE, NRC and other such entities place a high priority on self-preservation and quelling concerns. They speak in generalities that don’t account for the multi-faceted, long term, or unknown, multi-variable trigger nature of pollutants on disease.

    Their standard are based on what is known. Unknowns are systematically IGNORED.

    While calming concerns and preventing hysteria is certainly necessary, don’t think for a minute that you’re getting the whole truth from these organizations. You get their version of the truth which, which has an agenda, and the agenda is not your well-being as an individual.

    Stay vigilant.

    Become not sheeple.

    1. Chris-sama,
      Why it almost sounds like you don’t trust the US government to be constantly acting in our best interests. Thanks for the input. I would certainly never argue that radiation is good for us, as Ann Coulter seems to believe. 😀

  7. Man, where was this article a week ago? 😛

    I can understand many people getting nervous with basically every major media outlet covering this incident frothing at the mouth to convince people they’re all going to melt in their beds, but at the same time we live in an era where practically anything can be researched on the internet in minutes. Simply comparing the radiation levels released in the press conferences with a chart showing how small the amounts away from the power plant really are should alleviate most fears. There was concern TEPCO could be hiding or downplaying how much radiation was actually coming out of Fukushima’s plant, but that should have been dashed once unaffiliated sources also began measuring the radiation there and matching their numbers.

    It’s really unbelievable how irresponsibly the news networks and even government officials around the world have been reacting to this nuclear situation, most of them mentioning the massively destructive earthquake and tsunami that caused it as something of an afterthought.

  8. One thing that strikes me about this issue is how distrustful most Japanese people are of their own government. So far, I’ve not met one person who actually believes a word the government (or TEPCO) are actually saying. Not one. However, in typically passive Japanese fashion, they shrug it off. This has to be the most fatalistic country in the world! I like it here.

  9. The biggest bother of all this is the fact that its allowing us to effect the day to day lives of American service members. Its restricting the movements of our ships, and the ability of the ships to use port to restock on food and other essentials. None of the major US news outlets are responsibly reporting this. They don’t draw from export sources, and a lot of the time, are reporting on rumors, rather then official sources, which to me, is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded room.

    1. I know that you guys are doing incredible work aiding the earthquake victims and working with JSDF to contain the reactor. That’s the news that I wish was reported a lot more than rumor and speculation. Good luck to you, best wishes and thank you.

  10. Hi Jake, this is Wendy from China. Thanks for sharing the article. Btw, Peter Hessler is one of my favorite writers. 🙂 Just went to his event in Beijing on 17th.

  11. Hessler was not a nuclear physicist, but Petkau was.

    Lower levels of radiation = greater danger?

    The Petkau Effect
    Quote from Wikipedia

    “The Petkau effect is an early counterexample to linear-effect assumptions usually made about radiation exposure. It was found by Dr. Abram Petkau at the Atomic Energy of Canada Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment, Manitoba and published in Health Physics March 1972.

    Petkau had been measuring, in the usual way, the dose that would rupture a particular cell membrane. He found that 3500 rads delivered in 2¼ hours (26 rad/min) would do it. Then, almost by chance, he tried again with much weaker radiation and found that 0.7 rads delivered in 11½ hours (1 millirad/min) would also destroy the membrane. This was counter to the prevailing assumption of a linear relationship between total dose or dose rate and the consequences.[1]

    The radiation was of ionising nature, and produced negative oxygen ions. Those ions were more damaging to the membrane in lower concentrations than higher (a somewhat counterintuitive result in itself) because in the latter, they more readily recombine with each other instead of interfering with the membrane.

    The ion concentration directly correlated with the radiation dose rate and the composition had nonmonotonic consequences.”

  12. Dr Peter Karamoskos is a nuclear radiologist and a public representative on the radiation health committee of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency

    … There seems to be a never-ending cabal of paid industry scientific ”consultants” who are more than willing to state the fringe view that low doses of ionising radiation do not cause cancer and, indeed, that low doses are actually good for you and lessen the incidence of cancer. …

    Ionising radiation is a known carcinogen. This is based on almost 100 years of cumulative research including 60 years of follow-up of the Japanese atom bomb survivors. The International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC, linked to the World Health Organisation) classifies it as a Class 1 carcinogen, the highest classification indicative of certainty of its carcinogenic effects.

    In 2006, the US National Academy of Sciences released its Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation (VII) report, which focused on the health effects of radiation doses at below 100 millisieverts. This was a consensus review that assessed the world’s scientific literature on the subject at that time. It concluded: “. . . there is a linear dose-response relationship between exposure to ionising radiation and the development of solid cancers in humans. It is unlikely that there is a threshold below which cancers are not induced.”

    The most comprehensive study of nuclear workers by the IARC, involving 600,000 workers exposed to an average cumulative dose of 19mSv, showed a cancer risk consistent with that of the A-bomb survivors. …

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