By Bill Sacks
This is in response to Rosie Romero’s article in the January 27 issue of the GV News (p. B8), What you need to know about radon.
It is wrong, just plain wrong. In the low concentrations encountered in homes, radon is not a cause of lung cancer, let alone “the second leading cause,” as claimed by the EPA. On the contrary, in this setting radon acts like a vaccination and is actually protective against lung cancer, even though in a few uranium mines, where the concentration of radon in the air can be hundreds and thousands of times higher than that found in homes, it can indeed contribute to causing lung cancer.
Any attempt to mitigate the concentration in homes lowers that protective feature, and leads to a greater, not lesser, probability of developing lung cancer.
Sounds absurd? Perhaps an analogy will help. To claim that the low concentration of radon found in homes causes lung cancer, based on the fact that it has been found to contribute to lung cancer at very much higher concentrations, is like claiming that taking one aspirin a day (for cardiovascular protection) is deadly, based on the fact that swallowing an entire bottle will kill you. Or worse, that one aspirin a day is possibly “the second leading cause” of heart attacks. The fact is that small doses of radon and aspirin are beneficial to most people, while large doses can kill. This is true of most agents, from oxygen to water, from vitamins to sunshine.
In the early 1990s, University of Pittsburgh physics professor Bernard Cohen did a study of radon, examining homes in over 1,700 counties containing over 90% of the US population. He had hoped to measure how quickly lung cancer rates increase with higher home radon levels.
Much to his surprise and consternation, he found that the higher the average county radon levels the lower the lung cancer rates and, reciprocally, the lower the radon the higher the lung cancer rates. He enlisted the aid of a statistician to find possible confounding influences, such as smoking or other carcinogens, that might explain this unexpected and very strong inverse relationship. Together they examined hundreds of possible combinations of confounders but were unable to explain the result in that fashion.
At first Cohen was reluctant to conclude that it was the radon that was tending to protect, even smokers, from lung cancer, since it was so counterintuitive at the time. But eventually he grew to accept that explanation, since there was none other that arose. A number of scientists have repeatedly tried to refute Cohen’s conclusion, but the best that their arguments could do was explain half the discrepancy between the expected positive correlation and the observed negative one, and even that required them to invoke an implausible and highly improbable coincidence of high smoking rates with low radon levels, and vice versa.
Furthermore, Cohen’s discovery of radon’s protective effect at low levels of exposure has been corroborated by dozens of studies since then. Still regulatory agencies like the EPA and the Arizona Radiation Regulation Agency, whose administrators have a stake in maintaining the status quo – as well as companies who profit from home foundation repairs – refuse to credit the science.
Indeed exemplifying the pragmatic, rather than scientific, basis of radiation regulations, one of my colleagues at the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at the FDA told me that he is well aware that low levels of radiation are beneficial but that it would be a nightmare to change the regulations. Furthermore, many scientists continue to seek, and obtain, funding to attempt to refute the science.
Two other researchers and I have just submitted to a scientific journal a paper– one of hundreds of ongoing attempts to inject reality into the field of radiation science – showing that all studies concluding that low doses of radiation are harmful either ignore biological reality (experimentally and observationally confirmed in countless studies) or distort and/or dismiss it.
Furthermore, we show that all such studies contain hidden circular reasoning, in which the authors start by assuming that which is to be proven. The “all radiation is harmful” paradigm, along with its extra-scientific reward system, is a powerful hindrance to scientific objectivity. It has justifiably been called “the greatest scientific scandal of the 20th century” by the former director of the Swedish Radiobiology Society, Gunnar Walinder.
As we said in our September 30 opinion piece (p. 7), Why low-dose radiation exposure is not to be feared – published also as a letter in the January 2016 issue of Physics Today – Low dose radiation exposure should not be feared.
In conclusion, contrary to Rosie’s advice, spending money to test for, much less lower, the radon concentration in your home will not lower your probability of developing lung cancer, but rather will increase it. If you want to lessen your chances of developing lung cancer, quit smoking, which will also save you money.
I hasten to add that I do not attribute Rosie’s assertions to any dishonesty on his part, but rather to the official paradigm that has us all trapped in its clutches – until we find an escape route. Escape ultimately requires our own investigation, for which there is no substitute.
About the author:
Bill Sacks is a physicist turned radiologist who is now retired. He has spent the past few years studying global warming, nuclear energy, and the beneficial biological responses to low level ionizing radiation. He has coauthored a number of articles including Nuclear Energy: The Only Solution to the Energy Problem and Global Warming. His following pieces have appeared on Atomic Insights: Why does conventional wisdom ignore hormesis? , The Left Needs to Reconsider its Automatic Position Against Nuclear Energy and Physics Today Reader’s Forum: Low-dose radiation exposure should not be feared