President Jimmy Carter, was born on October 1, 1924 into a family that developed a depressingly high rate of pancreatic cancer. His father, brother and two sisters died of the disease, and his mother also suffered from it. Alone among his siblings, Jimmy, now 86 years old, escaped that fate and attributes his good health to the fact that he never smoked. (Update posted 10 November 2014: President Carter recently celebrated his 90th birthday and is widely described as “still going strong.”)
The Globe and Mail published an article on Friday, May 13, 2011 titled Jimmy Neutron: ex-president Carter recalls role in Chalk River meltdown. In that article, Carter described how, while waiting for his nuclear power school class to start, he was sent to assist in the clean-up following a core damage accident at Chalk River.
According to the story, he was part of a team that trained to enter a high radiation field and work for about 90 seconds each. During that time, they apparently used up their annual dose limit. I am not sure what the dose limit was in 1952, but the current annual limit for a nuclear worker is 5 Rem (50 millisieverts). (Update posted 10 November 2014: The international limit in 1952 was 15 Rem/yr (150 mSv/yr).) In addition to whatever whole body dose he received, Carter claims that his urine was radioactive for 6 months after that experience.
In an August 7, 2011 New York Times article titled In a Former First Family, Cancer Has a Grim Legacy, he also tells how he was prescribed semi-annual CT scans for a period of time to check to see if he had any lesions on his pancreas. Those regular doses stopped when his doctors guessed the extra radiation dose was adding to the risk, though they had no evidence to support that assumption.
Is it possible that President Carter’s lifetime exposure to radiation was the kind of moderate dose that has been shown to stimulate his human defensive and repair mechanisms?
I know that anecdotes are not acceptable proof of anything. However, I have been reading for years about how some people believe that Marie Curie’s early death from leukemia is “proof” that radiation is bad for you.
Update: (Posted on May 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm) A reader stated that Marie Curie did not die of leukemia, so I did some belated fact checking. The physician who signed her death certificate attributed her death to “an aplastic pernicious anemia of rapid, feverish development”, which is almost exactly the same diagnosis given to the first of the radium dial watch painters whose deaths were caused by excessive ingestion of radium while sharpening the tips of their paint brushes with their mouths. It is likely that the persistent myth of leukemia is because her daughter Irene Curie, who served as her assistant died from leukemia in her mid 50s. End Update
Update: (Posted Feb 14, 2014) A well-respected reader just pointed out that Marie did not experience an “early” death. Living to age 66 in a life full of hard work ending in 1934 was better than average at the time. According to figure 1 in a paper titled Life Expectancy during the Great Depression in Eleven European Countries, the mean life expectancy for females in France in 1934 was about 60 years. End Update
I have also read detailed histories that describe Marie Curie’s research work in isolating micrograms of radium from tons of uranium containing pitchblende. The careful distillation processes required many months worth of painstaking manual labor in a primitive laboratory with few, if any, safety devices. Those histories describe how the walls of her laboratory glowed because of the quantity of radioactive materials and how she liked to keep a vial of radium solution in her pocket for showing to people.
In addition, Mme Curie and her daughter Irene spent a several years during WWI using primitive X-ray machines to assist surgeons to locate shrapnel and bullets in wounded soldiers. Those early machines, particularly the ones used in the field, were inadequately shielded compared to modern devices. There is a very good possibility that the internal and external radiation doses that Marie Curie received were like those from the first bowl that Goldilocks tried – far too hot for human consumption.