On November 11, 2014, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. John Boice, the President of the National Council on Radiation Protection. Dr. Boice has had a long and distinguished career in radiation protection and is currently leading a multi-decade effort known as the Million Worker Study to investigate the evidence that has been gathered in the radiation records and health records of atomic veterans, commercial nuclear power workers, radiographers, uranium industry workers, plutonium workers, and nuclear medical workers.
The primary purpose of the study is to obtain statistically valid information about the health effects of doses that are accumulated over a lengthy period of time — years to decades — instead of in the brief flash of an atomic bomb blast.
The Million Worker study has been in various stages of record gathering, planning and database construction for about 20 years. The current phase was started in earnest in 2012. Dr. Boice told me that his study committees should be ready to report their findings in three to five years, assuming that they continue to receive the necessary support from their various sponsors. That is not a sure thing, funding is on a year by year basis and must keep successfully making it through the annual budget battles.
During our discussion, Dr. Boice told me some things about the evolution of the basis for radiation protection standards that I found fascinating in light of recent papers by Ed Calabrese about the evolution of the linear no threshold dose response model and my own research into the specific functioning of the Genetics Committee for the National Academy of Sciences Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation study published in June 1956. Here is what Dr. Boice said:
(Time mark 5:50) Boice: I mentioned the Atomic Bomb Survivor studies which the United States set up in 1947 under the direction of President Truman and we, the United States and the Japanese, have been studying the survivors since that time and continue studying them today. The reason why it was set up was to evaluate genetic effects in man.
Because of those studies that you just mentioned — Drosophila and the mouse studies — it was then thought that genetics, the effects on our children, passing on to the next generation, was really the issue. And, after comprehensive studies on the children of the atomic bomb survivors, looking for malformations, still births, neonatal deaths, changing blood chemistries, cancer risks – every measure of possible harmful effects, there was no increase.
It was rather a remarkable finding and studies that I have actually been involved in. I’ve studied the children of cancer survivors. We modeled our studies after the A-bomb data and we found the same thing – nothing. Which was very positive in terms of radiation. Radiation, we know, at certain levels can be harmful to our health, but it does not look to be an issue for our children, the next generation.
After those studies, then we had this switch in understanding, not for the genetically significant dose, but about the somatic dose. What about me, what about the radiation to the individual? Not about my children, my children are going to be okay. So there was a paradigm shift after those initial studies from the atomic bomb survivors.
Here is the part that I find fascinating from a logical perspective. According to the BEAR report, the reason they were concerned about the risk of low level radiation doses — all the way down to zero — was because they used a target theory for genetic effects that assumed even a single hit on a single cell could cause a mutation and they did not believe there was any such thing as a beneficial mutation.
If genetic effects have been shown to not be an issue for the kinds of radiation doses received by the atomic bomb victims, doesn’t that imply that the basis for the no threshold model is invalid? It’s worth reminding readers that the “hit theory” and the LNT model had been strongly pushed by a small, persuasive scientific minority as a replacement for the existing threshold dose model that had been widely accepted and used for half a century.
Here is an extensive quote from a front page article published in the June 13, 1956 edition of the New York Times — the day after the NAS BEAR committee released its report at a widely promoted press conference in Washington, DC.
The six committees studied the radiation problem in the fields of genetics, pathology, meteorology, oceanography and fisheries, agriculture and food supplies, and disposal and dispersal of radioactive wastes.
Overshadowing all others because of its implication for mankind was the report of the genetics panel. This was headed by Dr. Warren Weaver of the Rockefeller Foundation. It was this foundation that provided the funds for the year-long survey.
In addition to the six long summary reports of the committees, the scientists also issued “a report to the public” in the simplest language possible. Here the layman may read how radiation damage inevitably results from exposure, no matter how small the dose.
Radiation causes mutations or harmful changes in the genes or germ cells of the reproductive organs. Damage manifests itself in shortening of the life span, reduces the ability to produce children, and sometimes but not often produces deformed or freakish children.
Even if the mutation is in one gene, there is some harmful effect and that mutation will go on through every generation until the line that bears it becomes extinct.
The report explained how “every cell of a person’s body contains a great collection, passed down from the parents, the parents’ parents, and so on back, of diverse hereditary units called genes.”
“From the point of view of the total and eventual damage to the entire population, every mutation causes roughly the same amount of harm. This is because mutant genes can only disappear when the inheritance line in which they are carried die out. In cases of severe and obvious damage this may happen in the first generation; in other cases it may require hundreds of generations.
“Thus for the general population and in the long run, a little radiation to a lot of people is as harmful as a lot of radiation to a few, since the total number of mutant genes can be the same in the two cases.
But damage to future generations due to radiation will be difficult to identify. The study of genetics damage has only just begun, with a report due in August on genetic effects observed in the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cities destroyed by American atomic bombs in World War II.”
Most, if not all, of the assumptions and explanations of genetic material behavior in the above quote has been proven wrong during the 58 years worth of scientific research that has come following the issuance of the report. The above quote from Dr. Boice describes what the atomic bomb survivor studies have shown.
In fact, several of the assertions in BEAR 1 “report to the public” were known to be wrong at the time, but the committee members decided to embellish their description by claiming damage even in dose regimes where the best available data indicated no damage.
During my several decades of effort to communicate what I know about nuclear energy and the effects of atomic radiation, I have frequently engaged in discussions with experienced and well-credentialed experts who bewail the fact that they have not been able to attract attention from the media to help spread their information to the public.
Apparently the Rockefeller Foundation-funded BEAR 1 committee had a much better handle on the proven ways to attract public attention and get their stories published. That same edition of the New York Times includes several additional articles about the BEAR committee report and included a full reprint of the “report to the public.”
Here is an image of the page 1 headlines above the main article.
Boice Report #6 – A Study of One Million U.S. Radiation Workers and Veterans a New NCRP Initiative (DOE Grant Awarded September 2012)