Doses of radiation that are lower than about 700 mGy/yr (see note below) are more likely to reduce cancer incidence and increase life span than to decrease it. In other words, moderate radiation doses are good for you in the same way as moderate exercise is good for you.
The basis for this economy-altering assertion is documented in Dr. Jerry Cuttler’s recent paper titled Remedy for Radiation fear — discard the Politicized science which is available as a pre=press article from Dose Response.
Dose-Response, the journal of the International Dose-Response Society, is a quarterly peer-reviewed electronic journal publishing original findings on the occurrence of dose-response relationships across a broad range of disciplines. Particular interest focuses on experimental evidence providing mechanistic understanding of nonlinear dose-response relationships.
In his paper, Dr. Cuttler explains the biological mechanisms of adaptive response by referring to a chapter titled Hormesis by low dose radiation effects: low-dose cancer risk modeling must recognize up-regulation of protection from a medical textbook Therapeutic Nuclear Medicine, Springer, 2013. Here is a quote from Dr. Cuttler’s paper:
The critical factor is the effect of radiation on an organism’s very powerful biological defences and protection systems, which involve the actions of more than 150 genes. They act on all of the damage that is occurring (and its consequences) due to both internal causes and the effects of external agents. Although a low radiation dose or low level radiation causes cell damage, it up-regulates adaptive protection systems in cells, tissues, animals and humans that produce beneficial effects far exceeding the harm caused by the radiation (Feinendegen et al. 2013). The net beneficial effects are very significant in restoring and improving health. The detailed behaviours of the defences are very complex, but the evidence is very clear. They range from prevention/cure of cancers to the very important medical applications of enhanced adaptive protections in the responses to stresses and enhanced healing of wounds, curing of infections, and reduction of inflammation, as mentioned earlier. In contrast, high level irradiation impairs these systems.
Dr. Cuttler also provides some reasons why his conclusions are so different from the well known model that assumes all doses of radiation produce harm, with a straight line being drawn from measured damage at high levels through a region where there is no reliable evidence of harm to the origin at zero dose, zero harm. As he documents, the underlying reason why radiation protection organizations began applying the linear, no-threshold (LNT) dose response assumption is that it supported their well-intentioned effort to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and stop atmospheric testing of those same weapons.
The LNT assumption provided the scientific campaigners against nuclear weapons a rallying point. The extensive testing programs underway throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s were releasing and distributing measurable concentrations of radioactive isotopes all around the world. With the exception of a few isolated incidents, the isotopes were so dispersed that nearly all of the world’s population were exposed to doses that were not causing any detectable harm.
The people conducting the tests believed that there were good reasons to keep testing, so they resisted the pressures from people who thought that the testing was leading the world into a scary situation where the use of nuclear weapons might be considered acceptable. Many scientists in a variety of fields were adamantly opposed to testing and to the notion that using nuclear weapons was acceptable. Nations that did not have nuclear weapons or that had arsenals that were vastly inferior also had valid reasons to halt the testing and halt the proliferation.
Scientists working to block testing seized on the geneticists’ suggestion that all radiation doses, even the tiny ones being caused by weapons testing-related fallout, could cause harm. They officially accepted that idea in 1958 and began a heavy promotional campaign to spread fallout fears. A search of the New York Times article archive on the word “fallout” returned 964 instances during the period from Jan 1, 1958 through Jan 1, 1964. Here is an example headline from the New York Times.
(Note: Readers who desire a copy of the article may request one via email or via the contact form found at the bottom of the page.)
The sustained effort to promote fallout fear helped to create sufficient public pressure to force government decision makers in the US, the UK and the Soviet Union to agree to a treaty that halted nuclear weapons testing in outer space, underwater, or in the atmosphere. Here are some key quotes from the Times August 30, 1959 article titled Science in Review: Committee Report Provides New Data on Fallout From Nuclear Tests illustrating how the then new LNT assumption was being heavily promoted and applied.
A new look at the problem of fallout from the testing of nuclear weapons and its potential danger to present and future generation is presented in a report released last week by the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. It is based on the testimony last May by some thirty scientific witnesses and statements presented by other scientists.
The report brings up to date certain key points on which new knowledge has been obtained since the committee held hearings in 1957. These include new data on (1) the origin of fallout; (2) distribution of fallout; (3) biological effects of radiation; (4) tolerance limits; and (5) effects of past and future tests.
Evidence was presented implying “that the effectiveness of a given dose of radiation is less at low-dose rates than at high-dose rates, even for genetic consequences,” the report states. However, it adds, “the biological significance of low levels of radioactivity [such as may be found in fallout] is still largely unknown. No resolution was reached on whether or not a threshold level of radiation exposure exists below which effects such as cancer and leukemia do not result.”
It was generally agreed, the report states, that “in considering acceptable exposure limits in the context of world-wide environmental contamination from fallout, the best assumption that can be made at present concerning the relationship of biological effect to radiation dose is to assume that any dose, however small, produces some biological effect and that this effect is harmful.”
After representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty on August 5, 1963, the antinuclear weapons movement could proudly claim a significant victory that made the world a little safer.
Unfortunately, many of the people in the movement were not “in on the deal.” They had no idea that their success was assisted by a false premise created by well-intentioned genetic scientists who covered up data that falsified the LNT assumption. The people who created the concept did not realize the harm that it could cause because they comforted themselves with the notion that the assumption was “conservative” and would help to ensure that people employed in radiation-related fields would remain ever vigilant and accept onerous work rules that would have otherwise been resisted.
By the time the battle to halt testing was won, the LNT assumption had spawned a growing guild of radiation protection professionals trained under the assumption and not motivated to question it. The assumption of harm to a level of zero dose also instilled a new taboo; no one could suggest actually testing the assumption on human beings because it is a violation of the Hippocratic Oath to knowingly harm a patient.
Cuttler and many of his colleagues in the dose-response field of study rarely mention one more aspect of the strong resistance to questioning the LNT-based assumption that all radiation is harmful.
The regulations and work practices that have been imposed as a result of that assumption add an unmeasurable, but enormous, cost burden to the use of nuclear technology. That handicap is beneficial to a wide array of interest groups that make their money using technologies that would be substantially less competitive against a less burdened set of nuclear technologies.
This statement is true in medicine, food preparation, and industrial measuring applications, but the world’s non-nuclear energy industry is the group with the most to lose if the world’s human population accepts radiation as harmless and even potentially beneficial at low doses. Their multi-trillion dollar per year enterprise would be substantially less lucrative if it had to compete against nuclear energy without the LNT-based fear factor.
Even those parts of the hydrocarbon industry who’s product cannot be directly replaced with any current nuclear technology, like liquid fuels for personal transportation, would find that their valuable product would have a substantially reduced market price due to the effects of an increase in overall energy supplies. Many fossil fuels currently used for electrical power production, for example, can be chemically — and profitably — converted into synthetic gasoline or diesel fuel at a cost that is substantially lower than current world distillate fuel prices.
Radiation fear is a powerful tool for the world’s established energy industry and their fellow travelers in transportation, government and media. For all of the rest of us, however, Dr. Cuttler’s paper should be the source of massive celebrations. It enables us to have a far more optimistic outlook on future prosperity because it enables us to more readily use an incredibly powerful and abundant energy source that just happens to be a lot cleaner for the environment than burning fossil fuels.
Have a great weekend.
Argonne National Laboratory (1945 declassified in 1947) The Tolerance Dose
Note: Measuring radiation doses is often unnecessarily complicated by using a multitude of measuring scales, by the fact that different types of radiation — alpha, beta, gamma — have different effects, and by the fact that effects for shorter range radiation (beta and alpha particles) will be worse if the source is close and target cells are unshielded because the radioactive material is inhaled or ingested.
The chronic threshold dose of 700 mGy/yr is gamma equivalent whole body dose. The same dose can be expressed as 700 mSv/yr, 70 rad/yr, or 70 rem/yr. End note.