On Sunday, January 13, 2013, I had a conversation with Dr. Jerry Cuttler and Dr. A. David Rossin. Each of these distinguished gentlemen has a long history of working with ionizing radiation and studying its biological effects on human beings.
Dr. Jerry Cuttler earned his PhD in 1964. He has performed radiation research, designed radiation measuring equipment, and assisted in the design of control and monitoring systems for a variety of nuclear reactors, mainly heavy water CANDU reactors. He became personally interested in radiation health effects when he was conducting neutron measuring experiments that inherently resulted in elevated exposures; shielding would have prevented an effective experiment. He wanted to learn more about the potential risks that he and his colleagues were taking.
Later, he heard a talk given by Dr. Myron Pollycove about the history of beneficial uses of radiation in medicine and became “hooked” on the topic. He has been publishing peer reviewed journal articles and giving talks on the subjects of radiation health effects, adaptive dose response, and the illogic of the Linear No-Threshold dose response assumption for nearly 20 years.
Dr. A. David Rossin spent much of his career at the Argonne National Laboratory, staring off with investigations on the effects of radiation on steel pressure vessels. He recognized that the linear equations for damage did not work for steel; with increasing dose, the damage rate slowed and even reversed at elevated temperatures. He then started to wonder if similar healing effects might be happening with biological organisms – like human beings – that have specifically adapted mechanisms for health against imposed damage.
He has often engaged in debates against antinuclear activists like Helen Caldicott and has followed up on his interest in the health effects of radiation at doses below those that are known to overwhelm repair mechanisms.
Interestingly enough, both Dr. Jerry Cuttler and Dr. A. David Rossin are the type of radiation health experts that would be automatically screened off of any future BEIR committee under current rules. As the BEIR VII report front matter clearly states, “The NRC vetted all potential members to ensure that each was free from any apparent or potential conflict of interest.”
My interpretation of that statement is that anyone who works in the fields that apply radiation technologies and is personally motivated to clearly understand radiation health is prevented from sharing their expertise in the closed door meetings where the reports are generated. (The committee might ask selected experts to make a presentation or two to the conflict-of-interest-free and inexperienced committee members.) Radiation protection professionals who have been taught from the earliest stages of their careers to assume that radiation causes damage and have learned how to apply statistical models are, of course, welcome members of the committee and happily assigned report writing responsibilities.
Jerry, Dave and I discussed the BEIR process, the very human traits of regulators who are unwilling to change, and the illogic of continuing to apply a model that never had any empirical (experimental) basis. We also discussed how application of the “conservative” model of radiation standards resulted in real, measurable harm after the events at Fukushima.
In the response to that core damaging event, thousands of vulnerable people in nursing homes and hospitals were evacuated during a natural disaster in order to avoid what turned out to be trivial doses of radiation. The evacuations were rushed, they took place during a late winter storm with freezing temperatures, and they had to use a greatly damaged infrastructure of roads that added the risk of delay in the bad weather conditions.
According to the most recent count (which was provided to me in private correspondence translated from Japanese reports by a contact in the country) there have ben more than 1,000 early deaths attributed to the forced evacuation, temporary shelters with inadequate infrastructure, and stress imposed by lengthy relocations away from family and friends.
Overreacting to one risk by dashing headlong toward a much greater risk is generally not considered to be a conservative response. Society’s current overreaction to low doses of radiation is a bit like teaching children to run into a busy street in order to avoid the second hand smoke that they might have to breathe because a someone 20 yards up the sidewalk is coming toward them while puffing on a cigarette.
After all, that second hand smoke that might reach the child might cause cancer in a few decades if the child happens to breathe it in; all that the cars can do is maim or kill the child right now.