Written by Robert Holloway
The relationship between cancer and low-level radiation is a subject of much controversy. There is no doubt that radiation can cause cancer, at some dose levels. But whether or not radiation at very low levels also produces cancer is not known. By low levels of radiation, I mean doses that are similar to the doses that everyone gets from natural sources and from the routine use of medical x-rays. This uncertainty in the effects of low level radiation has not stopped some people from claiming that they have found evidence of cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants and other nuclear installations. As someone who has spent 25 years measuring radioactivity in the environment, I believe that most of these claims can be shown to be inaccurate, regardless of the exact relationship between cancer and low levels of radiation.
Most of these claims suffer from a fatal weakness, and that weakness is that there is almost no radioactivity in the environment from nuclear power plants and similar facilities. Nuclear installations are relatively clean installations when judged by any reasonable standard. What is a “reasonable standard”? There are of course, federal and state standards. But the standard that makes most sense to me is a simple comparison of the amounts of artificial radioactivity with the amount of natural radioactivity that has been present throughout human history. In the vast majority of cases where man-made radioactivity is found in populated areas, it is insignificant in amount compared to the natural radioactivity that is present in those same locations. Of course the activists and alarmists seldom mention such a comparison.
In discussing this issue, I should mention how radioactivity is measured. It is possible to measure even tiny amounts of radioactivity and it is possible to detect the radiation from even a single atom that undergoes decay (a nuclear transformation). I suspect that the lack of experience in making such measurements is a major source of misunderstanding by such misinformed activists such as Helen Caldicott and others. When radioactive contamination is present in the environment it is easily detected and normally it is possible to deduce the source of the material. There have been very extensive measurements of this nature and we know the “fingerprint” of radioactive debris from fallout and other sources.
Helen Caldicott, an M.D. living on Long Island, has been one of the most vocal critics of the various uses of radioactivity, including the use of nuclear power plants to generate electricity. Recently she called for a boycott of Hershey candy because it is manufactured not far from the Three Mile Island reactor. Oddly enough, even though she has devoted many years of her life to opposing the use of nuclear materials, she has never bothered to actually go out into the environment, measure the “poison” that she claims is so serious and publish the results. Radioactivity is easily measured, and there are hundreds of laboratories and other organizations that have the skill and equipment to do it. The state and federal governments, nuclear power plants and many other organizations routinely measure the radioactivity in many types of environmental samples. I am baffled as to why Helen Caldicott has not produced some measurements that support her case. It would help her case enormously to actually have some data, rather than her oft repeated claim that the environment is dangerously contaminated. She is in fact, a modern day Don Quixote, attacking imaginary dangers and believing that they are real.
I recently posted on my web site, the wire service report of Helen Caldicott advocating a boycott of Hershey candy. I wrote to her and asked for evidence supporting her implied claim of environmental contamination. I offered to post whatever evidence she has on the web site and open the issue up for discussion. It has been 2 months now since I made this request, and she has not replied.
If anyone claims that populated areas are being contaminated by nearby nuclear installations, I say: “Produce your measurements”. If it is there, it will be measurable. If there are no measurements, then there is no basis for claiming that it is there. For those citizens who are concerned about the effects of radiation, my suggestion is to not worry about it merely because someone raises the possibility of increased cancer rates. If a community is concerned about a possible problem, the first thing to do is obtain accurate measurements of the alleged contamination. If you read or hear some person who claims a danger from radioactive contamination, but does not have solid information about the concentration of the isotope, then it is very likely that they are not competent to speak of the dangers of radioactive materials in the environment.
In order to cause cancer, radioactivity has to emit particles or rays that damage tissue. These same emissions can also be detected by counting equipment. If you cannot detect the radiation with a careful monitoring program, then you don’t have any radiation. It is that simple. In making a case for some risk, it would also be helpful to show that the radiation is present in amounts that are significant compared to the natural radioactivity that is everywhere present. It is an odd and curious fact that these careless activists make frequent claims about the risk of radioactive contamination, and yet usually cannot show any evidence of such contamination. They do allege an increase in cancer incidence. Whether or not they even have solid evidence of such an increase is another question and one that goes beyond the scope of my effort here. However, because of what I know about the quality of other aspects of their work, my guess is that their “evidence” of increased cancer incidence would not survive a close inspection.
At the present time, government regulations governing the use of radioactive materials assume that any amount of radiation, no matter how little, has some risk of causing cancer. But this is an unproven assumption and it is very difficult to prove, because the percentage of cancers produced by low level radiation are believed to be small in comparison to the natural incidence of cancer. The best yardstick that can be applied is that if the amount of artificially produced radiation in the environment is small compared to the natural radiation background, then the risk is probably not worth worrying about. It can be shown quite easily and is generally accepted, that man-made radioactive contamination in the environment is only a tiny percentage of the naturally occurring radioactive materials.
This is an important point to remember when reading the various claims by Helen Caldicott and others. Unless they can show that there is artificial contamination in an amount that is substantial in comparison to the natural level, then they don’t have a case that would convince a jury of reasonable people. This issue has been decided in court in relation to the Three Mile Island accident. The judge refused to let the case go to a jury because of lack of evidence of any significant dose to the population. I challenge Helen Caldicott to either withdraw her claim that there is contamination in that region or to go out in the environment, take the measurements and prove her case. I have a feeling that I will be waiting a long time for her proof.
Even though the radiation safety regulations are based on the assumption that even small amounts of radiation can cause adverse effects, there is a body of evidence that suggests just the opposite. For example, there are populated areas of the world that have abnormally high levels of naturally radioactivity, usually due to abnormally high levels of thorium or uranium in the soil. Such areas exist in China, India and Iran. In some of these areas, the population receives much higher doses of radiation than average and even as much as 240 times the amount set as a limit for natural radiation by the ICRP, a respected international standard setting organization.
Because the people have been living there for generations with no apparent ill effects or increased incidence of cancer, there is apparently no evidence supporting the need for evacuation. The cancer mortality rates of one such high radiation region in China have been studied. It was found that the cancer mortality was lower in the high radiation area, than in a similar population in a low radiation region of China. The differences appear to be significant, ranging from a 15% lower mortality rate for leukemia in men to a 60% lower leukemia rate in women in the high radiation region. This is only one of a number of studies that show beneficial effects from radiation. This effect should not surprise us. There are many substances that are poisons in large amounts and yet have beneficial effects in small amounts. Elements such as iron, copper, potassium etc. come to mind. Perhaps the Renaissance scientist and physician, Paracelsus, got it right with the following remarks: “What is a poison? All things are poisonous and nothing is poisonous. Only the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.”
When I hear remarks from misinformed activists that “Plutonium is the most toxic substance known to man”, or that radiation is a “deadly poison”, I think of the important principle of Paracelsus, that they overlook. It might surprise the activists if they knew that the plutonium that they fear so much is present in the soil of their lawn. Is it a dangerous or deadly poison in that situation? Not at all. It is indeed measurable, but the amount is considerably less than the uranium and other natural radioactive elements also present, so there is no logical reason to be concerned about it. The unreasonable and paranoid fear of radiation may be the true poison in our society.
It seems that the possible beneficial effects (hormesis) of low levels of radiation are increasingly coming to the attention of the scientific community and the regulatory organizations. In 1994, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation decided to publish its report on the beneficial effects of small doses of radiation. The report “Adaptive Responses to Radiation in Cells and Organisms” was approved after 12 years of deliberation. The most important of the more than a thousand publications on radiation hormesis were reviewed in the report. The information quoted above about the scientific studies in high radiation areas is from some of the studies reviewed by the U.N. committee.