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I was recently invited to lunch by the editors of Newsweek magazine in New York City to discuss with them my views on what should be included in their next special issue on the nation's environmental priorities.
They were quite shocked when I told them that one of my top three, just behind applying DDT to stamp out malaria and improving drinking water supplies for impoverished nations, was reducing the unwarranted fear of low-level radiation that grips most of the world's population.
I was determined to call this issue to Newsweek's attention because I had recently read Ed Hiserodt's new book, Underexposed. I cannot recommend this book too strongly, nor can I praise it articulately enough.
Identifies False Theory
Let us first examine the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) theory, by which we have been held hostage for so long.
To take it to an absurd extreme so you will easily understand it, the theory basically says that if 100 percent of a given population will die from a fall from a 100 foot cliff, and 50 percent would die when falling from a height of 50 feet, then we can expect that one person of a hundred would die when falling from a height of one foot.
Silly as this seems, we use the same theory when studying the effects of chemicals and heavy metal intake by humans. Substances such as mercury, lead, tin, cadmium, oxygen, fluorine, arsenic, and selenium are toxic in large quantities, yet critical to our health in small quantities.
We call the phenomenon of harm at high doses and help at low doses "hormesis," derived from the Greek word "hormo," which means to excite. Thus, a substance that excites a positive bodily response at a low dose and is harmful at high doses is considered hormetic. Vitamins and trace minerals clearly show the difference a dose makes. The same is true of sunlight, noise, and stress.
Radiation Fears Unwarranted
A common measure of nuclear radiation is the millirem, or mrem. The average background radiation in the United States is 300 mrem per year, though higher at altitudes well above sea level, such as Denver.
Low-level radiation is a "green issue." The media tends not to criticize their green friends who oppose any and all forms of radiation. Indeed, if low levels of radiation are realized to be benign, then there goes a central argument of anti-nuclear activists.
There is in fact no scientifically credible evidence that low-level radiation is harmful, yet there is substantial evidence that it actually inoculates the body to resist the negative effects of future high doses. At the same time, low-dose radiation appears to have positive effects in increasing immune system competency.
Hiserodt informs us that if we want to avoid our natural annual background radiation, we would have to move to Antarctica or live underwater in a nuclear submarine. We could also encourage people to move from the high plains of Colorado--where the cancer rates are low--to states where background radiation is low ... but cancer rates are higher.
But of course we are not going to do any of these things, because if an increase in low-level radiation caused any problems at all we would have seen the evidence long ago, in the form of dead bodies. If low-level radiation harmed human health, Deadwood, Colorado (elevation 11,000 feet) would be well known for its citizens' short life spans, but that is not the case. In fact, the opposite is true.
According to Hiserodt, the only people who think there is any real danger from low-level radiation are the regulators, antinuclear activists, environmental zealots, and government scientists who cling to the Linear No-Threshold hypothesis.
Background Radiation Cuts Cancer
Hiserodt recounts how Dr. Bernard Cohen proved conclusively that geographic areas with slightly elevated levels of naturally occurring radon have a reduced incidence of lung cancer. The first of Cohen's studies was published in 1990, and an even more comprehensive study was reported in 1995. The wealth of evidence rocked the scientific community, most of whom had never bothered to question the Linear No-Threshold model.
Hiserodt exhaustively describes the many mice studies showing conclusively that the LNT model is absurd and that mice actually benefit from low-level radiation. He then explains that similar exposure among humans proves the very same thing.
The greatest proof, worth repeating, lies among the citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima--who were exposed to low-level radiation and went on to experience longer and healthier life spans than Japanese living elsewhere.
Study after study of nuclear power plant workers further illustrate the enhanced health of those working in an environment of low-level radiation. The most inclusive study, which was intended to show negative impacts on our nuclear workforce, began at Johns Hopkins University in 1980 and was reported 15 years ago. It conclusively showed positive effects of low-level radiation on 72,356 workers.
Perhaps the most telling real-world evidence of the benefits of low-level radiation is how the uneven distribution of background radiation around the world parallels the variations in human cancer rates. The higher the natural radiation background, the lower the local cancer rates.
Hiserodt briefly but clearly describes nuclear reactors, saying, "the new designs are even safer than the old--but how do you get safer than no deaths, no injuries, and no negative effects to the public from several thousand reactor years of operation with thousands of giga watt-hours of life-enhancing electrical energy having been generated?"
Wasting Money, Lives
The question of whether tiny amounts of radiation must be avoided, even at great cost, is neither abstract nor trivial. Hundreds of billions of dollars are targeted to remediate U.S. sites even though there is no scientific basis for claiming any health or other benefit from removing low-level radiation.
Worldwide, Hiserodt tells us, the cost of such remediation has been estimated at more than a trillion dollars. This is in addition to the unquantifiable cost of lives lost by fear and avoidance of mammograms, irradiated food, and other beneficial uses of radiation.
I cannot recommend Hiserodt's book too highly. It addresses a subject few understand, but thanks to this author's comprehensive research and clear writing ability, you are now within a few dollars and a few hours of grasping this important subject.
Jay Lehr, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is science director for The Heartland Institute.