No, a Little Radiation Is NOT Good For You → Washingtons Blog
No, a Little Radiation Is NOT Good For You - Washingtons Blog

Saturday, April 30, 2011

No, a Little Radiation Is NOT Good For You

Government scientists and media shills are now "reexamining" old studies that show that radioactive substances like plutonium cause cancer and arguing that exposure to low doses of radiation is good for us (a theory called "hormesis").

It is not just bubbleheads like Ann Coulter and pro-nuclear hacks like Lawrence Solomon are saying it as well. In virtually every discussion on the risk of nuclear radiation, someone post comments arguing that a little radiation makes us healthier.

However, the official position is that there is insufficient data to support the hormesis theory: As Wikipedia notes:

Consensus reports by the United States National Research Council and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) have upheld that insufficient human data on radiation hormesis exists to supplant the Linear no-threshold model (LNT). Therefore, the LNT continues to be the model generally used by regulatory agencies for human radiation exposure.


The notion of radiation hormesis has been rejected by the National Research Council's (part of the National Academy of Sciences) 16 year long study on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation. "The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial.
See this, this, this and this.

Most proponents of the hormesis theory claim that data from the residents of Nagasaki and Hiroshima shows that residents exposed to low levels of radiation (i.e. some miles from the bomb blasts) lived longer than residents who lived so far away that they were not exposed to any radiation.

However, as Reuters noted in 2000:

Japanese survivors of the atomic bomb have their life expectancy reduced by an average about 4 months, which does not support claims that survivors exposed to low levels of radiation live longer than comparable unexposed individuals.

To clarify the question of whether atomic bomb survivors have enhanced or reduced life expectancy, Drs. John B. Cologne and Dale L. Preston from the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, Hiroshima, Japan, studied 120,321 survivors and estimated their radiation exposure and mortality rates after 45 years of follow up.

They report in the July 22nd issue of The Lancet that median life expectancy fell by about 1.3 years per Gy of estimated radiation dose, and declined faster at higher doses. At doses below 1 Gy, median life expectancy fell by about 2 months, while exposures of greater than 1 Gy resulted in a median loss of life of 2.6 years.

Drs. Cologne and Preston estimate that at a dose of 1 Gy, 60% of those exposed died from solid cancer, 30% from illnesses other than cancer, and 10% from leukemia.

"These results are important in light of the recent finding that radiation significantly increases mortality rates for causes other than cancer," they write.

A large study of bone cancer in survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima published in March of this year also showed no hormesis, but rather increased cancer risk even at low doses. (See this and this for more evidence that low levels of radiation can cause cancer.)

Other data has also been misinterpreted by those who advocate that a little radiation is good for you. For example, the above-quoted Wikipedia article notes:

In popular treatments of radiation hormesis, a study of the inhabitants of apartment buildings in Taiwan has received prominent attention. The building materials had been accidentally contaminated with Cobalt-60 but the study found cancer mortality rates more than 20 times lower than in the population as a whole. However, this study compared the relatively young irradiated population with the much older general population of Taiwan, which is a major flaw. A subsequent study by Hwang et al. (2006) found a significant exposure-dependent increase in cancer in the irradiated population, particularly leukemia in men and thyroid cancer in women, though this trend is only detected amongst those who were first exposed before the age of 30. This study also found that rate of total cancer cases was lower than expected.
Even If Hormesis is Real, We've Got Too Much of a Good Thing

Even if the accepted scientific consensus is wrong and hormesis is real, we're getting too much of a good thing.

As I've previously noted:

There Are NO Background Levels of Radioactive Caesium or Iodine

Wikipedia provides some details on the distribution of cesium-137 due to human activities:

Small amounts of caesium-134 and caesium-137 were released into the environment during nearly all nuclear weapon tests and some nuclear accidents, most notably the Chernobyl disaster. As of 2005, caesium-137 is the principal source of radiation in the zone of alienation around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Together with caesium-134, iodine-131, and strontium-90, caesium-137 was among the isotopes with greatest health impact distributed by the reactor explosion.

The mean contamination of caesium-137 in Germany following the Chernobyl disaster was 2000 to 4000 Bq/m2. This corresponds to a contamination of 1 mg/km2 of caesium-137, totaling about 500 grams deposited over all of Germany.Caesium-137 is unique in that it is totally anthropogenic. Unlike most other radioisotopes, caesium-137 is not produced from its non-radioactive isotope, but from uranium. It did not occur in nature before nuclear weapons testing began. By observing the characteristic gamma rays emitted by this isotope, it is possible to determine whether the contents of a given sealed container were made before or after the advent of atomic bomb explosions. This procedure has been used by researchers to check the authenticity of certain rare wines, most notably the purported "Jefferson bottles".

As the EPA notes:

Cesium-133 is the only naturally occurring isotope and is non-radioactive; all other isotopes, including cesium-137, are produced by human activity.
So there was no "background radiation" for caesium-137 before above-ground nuclear testing and nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl.
Similarly, I've pointed out:
The Argonne National Laboratory notes:
Essentially all the plutonium on earth has been created within the past six decades by human activities involving fissionable materials.


Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which ceased worldwide by 1980, generated most environmental plutonium. About 10,000 kg were released to the atmosphere during these tests.

Average plutonium levels in surface soil from fallout range from about 0.01 to 0.1 picocurie per gram (pCi/g).

Accidents and other releases from weapons production facilities have caused greater localized contamination.
So like radioactive cesium and iodide - which I discussed yesterday - plutonium doesn't exist in nature in any significant quantity, and so "background radiation" is a meaningless concept.
In other words, even if a little radiation is good for us, we have already been getting exposed to a lot more radiation - from nuclear weapons tests, Chernobyl, Japan and other sources - than our ancestors were ever exposed to.

Indeed, even if the studies did show that low level exposure by the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped them live longer, background radiation in 1945 was much lower than after above-ground nuclear tests, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Other Toxic Exposures

It's not only apologists for the safety-averse nuclear power industry which is trying to convince us of hormesis. Apologists for all big polluters are arguing hormesis as well.

Wikipedia describes the general theory:
Hormesis ... is the term for generally favorable biological responses to low exposures to toxins and other stressors.
Even if radiation hormesis is true, we are exposed to a wide range of toxic chemicals, including BPA in our cans, rocket fuel in our drinking water, mercury in our fish, and many others.

Even if any toxic substances might have a hormesis effect in a vacuum, we are not exposed to chemicals in a vacuum ... we are exposed to several chemicals at the same time. Indeed, scientists long ago demonstrated the "synergistic effect" of toxins, where:
The combined effect of the substances acting together is greater than the sum of the effects of the substances acting by themselves .
For example, smokers are much more likely to get cancer from exposure to radioactive radon gas than non-smokers.

So even if there is hormesis from a chemical at low doses (hormesis promoters claim that low level exposures cause our body to produce a wave of antioxidants and other cancer-fighters), by the time we get swamped with the myriad of toxic chemicals and radiation exposures present in modern life, our body's defense mechanisms become so overextended that any hormesis effect is lost.

The bottom line: Some more radiation from Japan or a new nuclear power plant will not be good for us.


  1. I have talked to and met with both of my state's nuclear regulators. One heads the state's nuclear regulatory agency (phone conversation) and one is the point person for the state's radiation related emergency response system (met).

    Both of these individuals are pro-nuclear power.

    Both of these individuals attempted to trivialize the effects of continuous exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation. One of them was not even familiar with the research on its effects (or pretended ignorance).

    This individual kept comparing nuclear power favorably with coal (a la Monibot) despite my insistence on keeping the discussion focused on monitoring, emergency response, and long-term cumulative effects.

    There is no plan to monitor cumulating radiation in our environment. No response will occur unless federal intervention levels are reached.

    Both individuals attempted to mislead, trivialize, and distract using the absurd and patently false banana analogy for radiation exposure. Both agreed that internal emitters cannot be compared with external exposure, but like a broken record they kept returning to airplane exposure.

    After reading Fallout and Under the Cloud written about nuclear testing in the US southwest I have lost all faith in our government to protect us against radiation. Literally, the same vocabularies and metaphors are being used now as back then.

    This incident simply confirms a long trend of government collusion and deceit that began in the 50s and spans through 9/11, the BP mega-disaster, and our present situation.

    I have lost my faith in science as well, because too many scientists are willing to compromise their objectivity for grant money and industry paychecks.

    My question is how can we get reliable and valid information about our current level of exposure?

    I did learn from my conversations that radnet data are not timely. The citizens' radiation network is current, but does not provide any way of interpreting data reported and I'm not sure what the readings indicate.

    By the way, see today for his discussion of the expert opinion of someone from Japan Nuclear Technology Institute.

    CORE ON THE FLOOR scenario. What is the probability of a massive explosion?

  2. It's not nearly so simplistic as this author makes out, and there is ample evidence that the Hiroshima derived acute radiation linear model does not apply not apply to doses of radiation chronic (ie delivered over a long term).
    I'd agree this shouldn't be generalised to Iodine (which concentrates in the thyroid) or plutonium, but clearly the simplistic "no safe dose" arguments are flawed.

    Also - do some research into the alternatives (the real ones that is) not windmills, ethanol and solar power - but sadly still coal, as Fusion power is still a pipe dream - at least according to some researchers who I've spoken to, who admit a sustained energy +process seems decades away still...
    Coal kills a large number of people every year through mining accidents, black lung and significantly increased respiratory ailments.
    I'd likewise wish we had an alternative, but as an engineer i don't see one on the horizon yet (I don't work it those fields).

    .  Health effects of radiation depend on the circumstances and the dose-rate of radiation being received.
    .  Radiation can be classified into acute radiation and chronic exposure radiation.
    .  Health effects of acute and chronic exposure radiation are contradicting each other.
    .  Acute radiation is mostly harmful to people, but  chronic radiation is always beneficial to  people.

    1.  Epidemiological studies of people in the higher natural background radiation areas in Kerala (India), Yangjing (China) and Mountain States in USA, had lower cancer deaths. And higher doses received by nuclear workers in many countries result in lower cancer deaths. These results are still not accepted until today by the regulatory communities as human data proving that chronic radiation is beneficial to people.
    2. The Co-60 contaminated apartments incident, which occurred 20 years ago in Taiwan, did not show harmful effects to people, but only showed it was beneficial to them.

    A radiological incident in Taiwan revealed chronic radiation is always beneficial to humans-2
    3. A Co-60 source was mixed in metal scrap, melted and drawn into steel bars which were used in the construction of 1700 apartments for about 10,000 residents in 1982-84. The first apartment was discovered in 1992, its residents were irradiated at least for 9 years, the other ones up to 20 years. The annual dose in the first year 1983 was from about 50 mSv/y, high up to 600 mSv/y. The total averaged dose was starting at 0.4 Sv, and high up to 6 Sv.
    A radiological incident in Taiwan revealed chronic radiation is always beneficial to humans
    4. The total doses cumulated in 20 years were higher than the average doses received by the atomic bomb survivors in Japan, and the Russian recovery workers  in Chernobyl accident. If LNT model is appropriate for chronic radiation, the excessive doses could induce at least 35 excess leukemia and 35 solid cancer deaths in 20 years. Actually no such deaths were observed. On the contrary, the spontaneous cancer deaths of the residents should have been about 232 in 20 years based on the vital statistics in Taiwan, but only 7 were observed (3% of the 232 that could be expected), as shown in the following curve plotted by Luan et al since 1983.
    [eg cancer was reduced by 97%!!! Congenital abnormalities by 93%!!]


  3. I heard a lot of promo about cocaine being great fun. But a lot of money changed hands and ruination followed. I am glad that I left it alone.
    And as far as Taiwan goes, since when has Taiwan been a role model for accuracy and research and integrity.

  4. I agree with the author and with Majia's comment.

    The arguments of the hormesis proponents are flawed for three reasons:

    - on the theoretical level: they do not have a serious model modelizing internal exposure. When you do, you take into account the difference between tissues, cells and organs.

    - on the epidemiological level: they conveniently ignore serious epidemiological research. Their "studies" are selective and biaised, as many independent study shows (see below for a link to references).

    - on the methodological level: they are funded by the nuclear industry, in one way or another.

    Be careful: truly independent research groups on radiation risks are very, very rare. (For instance, the ICRP, the NRCPM, the UNSCEAR that the author quotes are all funded by the nuclear industry.) One independent research group is the ECRR (European Commission on Radiation Risk). Their research is much more serious and documented.

    The site contains many documents, notably (largely unaddressed by the mainstream media and science community) a book on Chernobyl and the ECRR 2010 Recommendations (which details the ECRR model, the epidemiological studies, a clear-cut refutation of the IRCP model and the hormesis hypothesis, and much more).

    @mark_ditton: I have to tell you: the pro-hormesis documents your links point to have all the three flaws that I have described above. In a sense I understand you, you try to reassure yourself. I am a scientist, part of that community. I know.


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