By Bill Sacks and Greg Meyerson
What we are about to say flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. There is no automatic reason for anyone to believe or trust our comments, so we provide some sources at the end that allow the reader to do further investigation. And for the sake of brevity we will for the most part make categorical statements, claims which rest on voluminous evidence that the reader may have to study, just as we have done, in order to get over the speed bump that the conventional wisdom invariably represents. Therefore consider this an introduction to the topic of radiation “hormesis,” intended to open doors, rather than an attempt to convince–-an impossible goal of a single commentary, particularly under the circumstances.
Hormesis – the stimulation by some agent, such as radiation, of biological responses that are protective against damage done by that agent. It has the same etymological root as hormone, which is a molecule secreted by a gland to stimulate a response in some other part of the body.
The biological response of people (as well as other animals and plants) to ionizing radiation (the kind produced by nuclear processes and x-rays or CT scans) is one with three phases:
- the response to too much radiation,
- to a healthy amount of radiation
- to a radiation deficiency
The second of these is the one that involves the protective response. In light of repeated assertions that all ionizing radiation is harmful no matter how high or how low the dose, the existence of a beneficial health effect may be surprising. But nearly a century of laboratory experimentation and epidemiological observation of both humans and animals supports the protective response region and contradicts the conventional wisdom. Why then does the concept that all ionizing radiation is harmful hang on with such tenacity, and how did it gain a foothold against all evidence to the contrary?
In the early part of the 20th century, radiation (for convenience we will drop the word “ionizing” but it should be understood for the purposes of this commentary) regulations by government agencies–regulations which were recommended by certain research organizations, but not all–allowed exposures to much higher doses of radiation than became the rule after the dropping of the “atomic” bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The arms race that followed the war, especially between the US and the Soviet Union, gave rise to the testing of more and more nuclear weapons. At first this testing was in the atmosphere. Open-air testing released radioactive materials from the explosion that were massively diluted and carried by the wind to distant places. The material included radioactive fission products as well as the original uranium or plutonium that constitute the initial explosives. Doses and dose rates caused by exposure to this material were, with very few exceptions, tiny. Scientists responsible for public health protection computed that there was no risk to the public from such small exposures.
A campaign began to stop the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. Scientists who recognized the dangers of nuclear war wanted to convince masses of people to protest their respective governments against both the testing of nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race. In pursuit of this goal, they were willing to lie about the dangers of fallout and exposure to low or moderate amounts of radiation from radioactive material. Many of the scientists involved in the political effort to slow the arms race and halt testing were involved in the Manhattan Project and expressed regrets for their participation in the creation of nuclear weapons because of the death and destruction caused by the use of bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The first recorded lie in this campaign was offered in 1946 by Hermann Muller as part of his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize he received for his earlier work on radiation-caused mutations in fruit flies. He claimed there was unequivocal evidence that all radiation was harmful and proposed the theory that individual “hits” produced mutations, but his statement has often been repeated out of context. Here is a more complete quote:
These facts have since been established with great exactitude and detail, more especially by Timoféeff and his co-workers. In our more recent work with Raychaudhuri (1939, 1940) these principles have been extended to total doses as low as 400 r, and rates as low as 0.01 r per minute, with gamma rays. They leave, we believe, no escape from the conclusion that there is no threshold dose, and that the individual mutations result from individual “hits”, producing genetic effects in their immediate neighborhood.
Even though he provided some caveats and context, Muller was in possession of information that he knew disproved the assertion. One of his colleagues had just obtained an experimental result showing that low doses of radiation actually were protective, which Muller had acknowledged one month prior to his acceptance speech, saying in a note that when he returned from Stockholm they would have to look into this further. (Ref: Callabrese, Edward, Muller’s Nobel lecture on dose–response for ionizing radiation: ideology or science?, Archives of Toxicology, Dec. 2011).
Muller was thus the first to deliberately exaggerate the dangers in order to create a climate of fear. This lie, this exaggeration, is still with us to this very day, and pervades the underlying position of virtually all governmental regulatory agencies around the world that deal with radiation – as well as the position of those economic interests (particularly fossil fuel companies), organizations, and individuals opposed to nuclear energy.
The lie became embodied in a demonstrably false expediency that is called the linear-no-threshold (LNT) model, which states that damage due to radiation is harmful and linear down to zero dose, with no threshold below which there is no harm. Linear means that, for example, twice as much radiation, no matter how low the dose, creates twice as much damage to a population, mainly in the form of numbers of cancers and deaths. The absence of a threshold is sometimes admitted by advocates of LNT to be a mere expediency. This is particularly true of the series of reports published by the BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) committee of the National Research Council (part of the National Academy of Sciences).
But rather than announcing that there is no evidence to support this model, LNT advocates, including the BEIR committee, assert that in order to demonstrate that LNT is true, the sample sizes of people exposed to low doses would have to be impractically large for statistical significance to be obtained. This incidentally argues, without their intending it, that any statistical significance so achieved would indicate very little clinical significance in the low-dose range if LNT were true.
They even go so far as to claim that the actual data in the low-dose range are “consistent with” LNT. This latter claim rules out hormesis a priori, so that evidence that is far more “consistent with” hormesis (as the sources mentioned at the end, both directly and indirectly, will testify) is ignorable as such, and is co-opted to their purposes with the statement that the evidence is “inconclusive.” In short, they rule out hormesis by fiat rather than by scientific evidence. They are forced to this maneuver since the evidence supports hormesis and contradicts LNT. The only reason that LNT is widely accepted is that virtually all political power stands behind LNT, so that it has long been the default position. This is not science.
But more recently a growing group of researchers into the effects of radiation at various doses, and others who support their efforts, have begun campaigns to undo the very harmful effects of the radiophobia–-an unwarranted fear of radiation–that has arisen from insistence on the LNT assumption. The media and certain publicists stoke radiophobia because “fear sells.” There are even scientists who seek the prominence that opposition to radiation earns them.
Radiophobia not only fails to prevent harm, but actually causes harm–and very great harm at that. First, it produces a refusal by many people to undergo potentially life-saving radiation, from things like x-rays and CT scans to nuclear medicine studies, for the purpose of diagnosing illnesses and injuries–illnesses such as breast cancer that can be detected on mammograms early enough to cure it and injuries such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by head impacts.
Second, and perhaps even more devastating, radiophobia produces government-sponsored forced evacuations of entire areas surrounding nuclear plants that experience accidents, as happened around Chernobyl (in Ukraine) in 1986 and around Fukushima in 2011. Only the accident at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, PA, in 1979 failed to produce such a reaction by the government, though entirely unwarranted fears were still fanned among nearby residents. The consequences of forced evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people have resulted in destruction of homes, communities, and jobs, and contributed to alcohol abuse, suicides, unwarranted abortions, and other pathways to early death. Children of families who were forced to relocate by the Japanese government have been shunned by their new schoolmates out of an unfounded fear that they are radioactive–-a stunning result of pronounced disinformation and misinformation by the media and government.
In contrast, the radiation has hurt no one, in either location, with the sole exception of the firefighting personnel who put out the 10-day fire at Chernobyl from helicopters and were exposed to massive doses of radiation coming out of the smokestacks. While it has been claimed that there was an increase in the rate of thyroid cancer incidence in children following the nuclear meltdowns in both Chernobyl and Fukushima, there is evidence even in the more plausible instance of Chernobyl that this putative increase may be an artifact of the new onset of screening.
There was no baseline measurement of the rates of such cancers prior to either accident, so any claim of an increase is unfounded, especially in the case of Fukushima. The intense screening for thyroid cancer that has taken place in and around these locations has led to the discovery of high rates of occult thyroid cancers in both children and adults that were previously unsuspected. Since the latency period for the development of thyroid cancer is at least 4 years, any such finding around Fukushima must necessarily be part of the baseline and cannot possibly be the result of radiation from the nuclear plant, as anti-nuclear propagandists would like us to believe.
And if it should prove some day that even a part of the increase around Chernobyl was indeed contributed to by the radiation, it should be noted that the paucity of iodine in that geographical area-–as opposed to Japan, where the diet is rich in iodine-–leaves thyroid glands excessively hungry to take up any and all iodine that becomes available, particularly the radioactive I-131 emitted by the nuclear plant. It should also be noted that any uptake of I-131 can always be blocked through the administration of non-radioactive iodine in the form of potassium iodide tablets, as was done around Fukushima.
LNT leads to the setting of excessively low radiation exposure limits by various regulatory agencies around the world, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Such limits do not “err on the safe side,” as many who work for these agencies try to console themselves, but rather cause tremendous harm to millions of people.
Radiation is like virtually every other agent, whether physical, chemical, social, or psychological. There can be too much, just right, or too little. Everyday examples include water, oxygen, sunlight, and exercise. Too much water and electrolytes become diluted resulting in cardiac arrhythmias; just right keeps the body well hydrated and allows chemical reactions to proceed as needed; and too little results in dehydration and death. Too much oxygen results in oxygen toxicity with effects such as blindness and disorientation; just right keeps us breathing; and too little leads to suffocation and death. Too much sunlight leads to sunburn and skin cancer; just right keeps vitamin D levels in a healthy range; and too little leads to rickets with its bone deformities in children (unless vitamin D is supplemented through diet). Too much exercise can result in muscle damage or heart attacks; just right keeps one fit; and too little leads to obesity and lethargy, with muscle wasting and weakness.
In fact, as recent research shows, the interaction of proper levels of exercise with cell dynamics is in certain ways almost identical to the interaction of radiation in the hormetic zone with cellular mechanisms that both repair and improve cell function. Both exercise and radiation at appropriate levels cause damage, sometimes in the form of double-strand breaks of DNA, that subsequently stimulates mechanisms that repair those breaks, along with other breaks caused by oxidative stress. The latter outweigh those caused by radiation by several orders of magnitude, even when we are at rest. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4036399/).
Examples of hormesis are thus widespread, but the point is that there is a so-called “goldilocks” zone of “just right,” as well as two peripheral zones of “too much” and “too little” for all these agents. And radiation, as we note, is no exception. The amount of natural background radiation from place to place on earth varies by a factor of over 200 to 1 – due largely to the radioactive element radon (a gas) that seeps from the ground, as well as to significantly varying amounts of radium and thorium near the surface of the ground. Those places with the very highest natural radiation levels–including parts of Iran, Finland, India, and Brazil, among others–have healthy people with no higher rates of cancer, and often lower rates, and no earlier deaths, and often longer lives.
All agents to which the earth’s environment has exposed bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals, as they have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, have necessarily produced organisms that are resistant to harms done by those agents. It is important to note that the rash of new chemicals in our modern environment–some thousand new chemicals each year–have not been around to produce such selective pressures. As a result, we are susceptible to injuries and illnesses from them, prominently including cancer and heart disease. Against such agents we have not had a chance to develop defenses, a development that can take hundreds to thousands of years. Thus some of these new agents may very well be harmful regardless of how low the dose, and should–like lead and mercury–be regulated differently from those exhibiting a hormetic effect.
While this essay is too brief to document the evidence for hormesis, we refer below to some of the best sources that should lead the open-minded reader to rethink her/his assumptions. But we would like to present readers with one important piece of research, important precisely because the investigator expected the opposite of what he found.
Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh did a massive 4-year study in the early 1990s of radon levels in homes versus lung cancer rates. He investigated over 1700 US counties that included more than 90% of the US population. Believing the demonstrably false LNT model to be true, he expected to measure the rate at which lung cancer rates increased as radon levels in homes increased. But instead he found the opposite, namely that those counties with the higher levels of home radon were those with the lower rates of lung cancer, and vice versa. Not ready to believe this result, he examined with the help of a statistician hundreds of combinations of possible confounders, but none of them could explain the results. He was therefore driven to conclude that radon is actually protective against lung cancer–even in smokers–within the ranges found in US homes. See figure below:
Focusing on the region below about 1 pCi/l (picocuries per liter of air) of radon reveals that not only is radon protective above 1 pCi/l, within the limits measured, but that inadequate amounts of radon permit an excess of lung cancers. By stressing the fact that it is possible to be exposed to too little radiation (as suggested in our third bullet at the beginning of this commentary), it may be possible to overcome the influence of the decades-old falsehood that all radiation is harmful. It is not simply harmless at low doses, but it is actually beneficial – at least in the goldilocks zone – unless the level is too low.
Radiologists, for example, who have been assiduously trained in the LNT model, justify their exposing patients to radiation for needed imaging studies by comparing the risk of refusing a screening mammogram, x-ray, or CT to the risk of cancer and early death from undergoing such studies. Since the benefit of diagnostic information always outweighs the risk of negative consequences, radiologists have not been forced-–yet-–to relinquish their professional hold on LNT. Though a handful are coming to realize that LNT has other severely negative consequences and are beginning to try to convince their fellows of this reality. In contrast, many of the world’s scientists who investigate the biological effects of low doses of radiation have already come to this conclusion and have been trying to introduce this by now counterintuitive concept to the field of radiology-–so far to little avail.
The LNT falsehood not only fails to “err on the safe side,” but it is harmful, as it causes devastating actions like forced evacuations of homes and communities while inhibiting, or actually preventing, access to life-saving and health-conferring radiation, whether diagnostic or therapeutic. Further, by helping to spread unwarranted fears, it impedes our capacity for rational thought.
As such, adherence to LNT by regulatory agencies and organizations may rightly be considered criminal. As Gunnar Walinder, former chairperson of the Swedish Radiobiology Society and author of the book Has Radiation Protection Become a Health Hazard (2000), has put it, “LNT is the greatest scientific scandal of the 20th century.”
We would note that the greatest harm facilitated by the LNT falsehood is that its affiliated and entirely fictitious metrics for estimating future mortality have enabled an anti-nuclear paradigm rooted in fear. This has worked to disable our most reliable technology for addressing climate change, even as it promotes fantasy-laden optimism about the scalability of inherently intermittent and dilute wind and solar to carry the burden of baseload electricity.
We conclude by declaring that we have no connection to the nuclear industry, to any grant-funding agency, or to any other business or governmental agency involved in radiation regulation or related issues. Our only interest is in promulgating the scientific truth as an antidote to official unscientific falsehoods that do benefit some, both financially and socially.
Since this commentary flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, we suggest some sources for further investigation. Everyone will need to convince her/himself, just as we have, through some reading. Try beginning with such overviews as T.D. Luckey’s book Radiation Hormesis (1991) or Charles L. Sanders’s book Radiation Hormesis and the Linear-No-Threshold Assumption (2010), both of which, in turn, cite hundreds and hundreds of scientific studies from around the world for further follow-up.
About the authors:
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.
Greg Meyerson is a specialist in critical theory and is a professor in the English department at North Carolina A&T. He teaches STEM oriented advanced composition for the College of Arts and Sciences at North Carolina A&T. He has coauthored a number of articles including Nuclear Energy: The Only Solution to the Energy Problem and Global Warming
Editor note: Atomic Insights has been following the effort to uncover the history associated with implementation of the LNT assumption as the basis for radiation protection regulations for several years. Until recently, we accepted the idea that Muller was motivated by a sincere and admirable desire to limit halt the arms race and nuclear weapons testing. Recently, we discovered that Muller’s fruit fly experiments between 1927-1932 were generously supported by grants from the oil and gas-linked Rockefeller Foundation. Muller’s later work at Indiana University was also generously supported by the same foundation.
This discovery has raised serious questions about Muller’s true motivations for a long history of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about the danger of radiation, even at very low doses and dose rates.