You’ve been told lies. Low dose radiation isn’t harmful. It can improve health
Biological Theory has published the equivalent of a “bunker buster” salvo in a decades-long war of words between scientists.
On one side are people who believe that there is no safe dose of radiation. They assert that radiation protection regulations should continue using a linear, no threshold model.
The other side includes those who say that sufficient evidence has been gathered to show there are dose levels below which there is no permanent damage. They say the evidence indicates the possibility of a modest health improvement over a range of low doses and dose rates. They believe that the LNT model is obsolete and does not do a good job of protecting people from harm.
The new paper has the reverse-click bait title of Epidemiology Without Biology: False Paradigms, Unfounded Assumptions, and Specious Statistics in Radiation Science (with Commentaries by Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake and Christopher Busby and a Reply by the Authors).
It has characteristics that make it unusually important.
- Two of the paper’s reviewers voluntarily gave up their using anonymity and agreed to have their comments published with the paper
- The paper authors addressed the reviewer comments
- It identifies specific fallacies in the “no safe dose” theory
- It does not include any equations or obscure mathematics
- It has been published as an Open Access paper with a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
- The journal editors allowed a major exception to their normal word limit as a result of their judgement about the topic’s importance
For people who aren’t in the fields of radiation protection, nuclear medicine or nuclear energy, the debate about the proper basis for the regulatory model for low level radiation might seem to be an obscure scientific or political conflict. Some who are in the affected fields believe that the science was long ago settled, the appointed committees have made their decision and it is too late to change existing public perception.
Bill Sacks, Gregory Meyerson and Jeffry A. Siegel, the authors of the bunker-buster of a paper, believe it’s never too late for an evidence-based discussion that results in a revision of our current paradigm.
They understand that a revision away from the “no safe dose” assumption would have financial implications measured in the tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year. There are tens of thousands of affected jobs and many thousands more that might be created or destroyed depending on the outcome of the discussion.
Here is what they say about the implications of a move away from the LNT assumption.
Belief in LNT informs the practice of radiology, radiation regulatory policies, and popular culture through the media. The result is mass radiophobia and harmful outcomes, including forced relocations of populations near nuclear power plant accidents, reluctance to avail oneself of needed medical imaging studies, and aversion to nuclear energy—-all unwarranted and all harmful to millions of people.
Primary Theme Of New Paper
According to Sacks et al, the main reason for the continued dominance of the “no safe dose” assertion is that there have been hundreds of papers published that treat detection of the effects of low dose radiation as an epidemiological issue in isolation from a biological science.
As they explain the situation, studies of exposed people that attempt to make risk judgements based on reported disease incidence have often started with assumptions that radiation is a proven carcinogen, that there is no expected threshold and that a study finding no detectable harm simply has an insufficient statistical power to detect a small signal. Unsurprisingly, studies that begin with an underlying assumption that the damage is directly proportional to the dose all the way to zero end up with results that can be described as “consistent with” that model.
At its root, the linear no threshold (LNT) model is based on the “target theory” that reduces biological organisms to individual molecules that are passive receivers of radiation. Under this paradigm, there is no interactions between molecules, no evolved responses to damage, no mechanisms for recovery and no system that rejuvenates or eliminates faulty tissues. Sacks et al call this “a particular form of reductionism.”
The LNT for genetic damage was introduced to the world on June 12, 1956 and was extended to cancer initiation in 1957. Since then there has a vast increase in our understanding of DNA and cancer development that is not reflected in the model.
It must be noted that the vast majority of human cancers are not simply the end product of one or more mutations. Such mutations may be necessary, but they are not sufficient to produce cancer. The 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to three investigators—Lindahl, Modrich, and Sancar—for discovering three intracellular repair mechanisms that prevent most of us from getting cancer on a regular basis. In addition to intracellular DNA repair mechanisms, modern understanding of the role of the immune system in the development of clinically overt cancers has led to a replacement of the outdated “one mutation = one cancer” model. In fact, deficiencies in repair enzymes and/or evasion from immune system detection and destruction have emerged as the newest explanations for cancer formation, rather than simply DNA damage.
Sacks, Meyerson and Siegel take on the primary US regulators (NRC and EPA), the National Academies of Science Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation committees, the Image Gently campaign and a number of recently published papers by LNT defenders that have been cited by numerous sources as providing continued “proof” that the LNT is the best available model.
They point out that papers based on statistical inference have been getting a lot of negative attention in medical journals recently and explain why many of the radiation health epidemiological share the weaknesses that have been identified in so many similar fields.
They describe how career and financial investments in the LNT have increased the resistance to having a serious discussion of the biological evidence that disputes the model.
They don’t mention, but I will, the fact that the US Department of Energy invested in a low dose radiation research program for ten years, but funding for the program was abruptly cut off just as many of the studies were being completed. Those studies were approaching a conclusive demonstration of the existence of safe doses because of the way biological systems can protect, respond and repair themselves.
Sacks, Meyerson and Siegel conclude their essay with a discussion of three examples ways that continued adherence to a biologically inaccurate “no safe dose” assertion is harmful to humanity.
- It has led to unnecessary, forced relocations of hundreds of thousands of people at Chernobyl and Fukushima
- It leads people to refuse useful medical imaging, sometimes substituting far more risky and invasive alternatives
- It contributes to the aversion to nuclear energy
This paper deserves attention and study. The possibility of revising the radiation paradigm to acknowledge that low doses of radiation are safe is too important to ignore.
Disclosure: Like the three authors of the paper discussed, I am a member of SARI – Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information. I contributed when the hat was passed to raise the funds that would enable the paper discussed to be published as Open Access.
The above article was initially published with the headline Powerful Shot Against Believers In “No Safe Dose” Of Radiation on Forbes.com.
If the authorities including the nuclear industry continue to treat radiation – or specifically man-made radiation in the precise context of nuclear power – as vastly more dangerous than it is then people, or at least rational people (the vast majority I suspect) will always be scared. The incessant banging on about safety is a huge mistake and is bound to scare people – how many genuinely safe industries keep telling us about it? This has to start at home. At least there is one bright light, the cancellation of yet another study into radiation effects. Whatever the result of such a survey the very fact that so many have been carried out proves how dangerous it must be.
Wait a minute … Christopher Busby (the “Onion Johnny” of crackpottery) was selected as a reviewer for this paper?!
I’m rapidly beginning to lose respect for this journal. I see that the other “non-anonymous” reviewer is also from the pseudo-scientific, Green Party organization ECRR. Not good.
Then again, the journal decided to publish it over his objections, so that’s a point in its favor.
Anyhow, thanks, Rod, for publicizing this. I’ll have a look.
The comments from Busby should be … entertaining. Sadly, it’s probably not as good as the screeds he has written for Counterpunch, since I’m sure that the editors insisted on keeping him under control (and perhaps on his medications).
Re: “reverse-click bait title”
Rod….did you purposely omit a comment option on your thread about your recent exchange with Lovins? If so, I can understand why, as the manner in which Lovins responds to you invites insult, and many of the commenters here would probably be far more feral in their comments than necessary for a constructive commentary. But at the risk of self imposed hypocricy, I feel the need to comment. (Actually, its not a risk, its a certainty.) On another thread, I note how I find Lovins to be an insipid looking little weasel. So naturally, it follows that his exchange with you was offered as insipedly as his appearance is. He’s like a Wally Cox with no balls.
@poa: Appearance can be deceiving.
And sometimes it’s not.
Nope. Just overlooked the allow comments selection box. Thanks for heads up.
The amount of natural background radiation to which we are exposed varies greatly with location. Here in Albuquerque, NM, U.S.A., we are exposed to considerably higher than average background radiation because we are almost one mile above sea level.
If the LNT hypothesis were true, then those of us who live in areas of higher natural background radiation would be expected to be affected by it in ways that could be measured.
That, or actual cancer increase really is there, and would certainly be observed were it not hopelessly swamped by the relatively healthy lifestyles chosen by most New Mexicans.
What part of “a study finding no detectable harm simply has an insufficient statistical power to detect a small signal” do you not understand?
I see that explanation as nothing more than an excuse. It looks as though the LNT people have their minds made up and there is no evidence that would convince them otherwise.
As for healthful lifestyles in NM, they really aren’t. We have about the lowest per capita income in the entire U.S. of A., about the highest high school drop out rate, etc. In any case, I’d suggest a study which would include large numbers of people from many areas of varying radiation levels.
Hope you didn’t misunderstand me. A couple years ago I actually ran Pearson’s R test on cancer incidence vs. background radiation for 15 EU countries plus UK, Australia, and the U.S. Statisticians generally consider an R greater than 0.9 to be marginally significant, and anything greater than 0.95 something one can actually talk about.
My Euro-weighted Pearson’s R came in at -0.36
In other words, no correlation whatsoever, and what little there was is negative.
It’s a crude and simple back-of-the envelope test that doesn’t really mean anything much. Other than to confirm your original assertion that if LNT actually does hold at background levels < 10 mSv/year, it's adherents should perhaps do a bit more than just wave their hands in support.
Did you ever run your Pearson’s R test using log(dose)? Or alternatively, run a Pearson’s chi-square test using log(dose) with an exponential fit with offset?
I ask this because this kind of regression test assumes that the “L” in the LNT hypothesis is true when most likely it is not. Indeed, your negative correlation my suggest a hormetic effect.
My contention is that all radiation dose/effect models should use log(dose) for at least two reasons: most dose ranges of interest have an order of magnitude of at least two or more and, for biological samples, there is no such thing as zero dose. So the “origin” in these kinds of studies is totally irrelevant, especially for cancer incident studies.
If you want to pursue this, try a quadratic fit with log(dose) and compute a Pearson’s chi-square statistic. And if you would, report your results. If not, would you want to share your data set?
Apparently, the effect of living in areas with different background radiation rates does become measurable in analysis of the DNA of blood cells, and a positive relationship between so-called “chromosomal aberrations” and radiation dose has been repeatedly confirmed, at low dose rates.
So it’s easy to see why some people who look at these clear effects of radiation can become spooked into thinking that LNT does hold down to zero dose.
But what has not been confirmed in these same studies is a positive relationship between background dose and cancer incidence/death, and that’s what really matters.
So rather than support LNT theory, these large studies which clearly show a link between chromosome aberrations and background dose, but which do NOT show a link between cancer incidence and dose, these studies appear to be confirming that the body is indeed quite capable of dealing with these low dose effects.
It seems as if international radiation protection guidelines have noted only the fact that the tissue is affected by low dose radiation, but has neglected to address the more relevant question of whether these known effects are necessarily linked to negative health outcomes. The large studies all (still) appear to show that these negative health outcomes do not exist.
Thanks Joris. Raises a raft of interesting questions, which I’m sure have already been asked by the medical folks, related to whether and how these DNA aberrations might be related to the modest up-regulation frequently observed in low-does radiation studies. Is this actual DNA radiation damage that triggers protective response elsewhere in and out the cell, or is it a DNA mechanism for storing information needed to counter radiation or similar damage elsewhere, or both, or something else?
Correlation may not be causation, but it does lend a clue as to where to look. Information has to be stored somewhere, as up-regulation radiation protection is apparently more pronounced after chronic exposure rather than after acute.
(I am not a biologist)
I’m not a biologist either, but I can speculate.
I imagine cell biology is a rather messy, inefficient affair with all sorts of processes and reactions taking place seemingly without purpose or meaning. Lots of damage is being done by internal and external factors. Lot’s of structures are being built and taken down. Toxins and nutrients are present in increasing and decreasing amounts. The cell survives and thrives because the sum total of all these varying and seemingly random conditions add up to it’s ability to maintain itself and perform whatever tiny task it has to perform.
Now along comes an energetic particle every now and again, from external radiation. It careens through the cell structure, randomly causing this and that effect. AFAICT it’s like throwing a pebble in jacuzzi and watching the ripples that causes. Pretty hard to identify which ripple is which. Pretty hard to see whether something was improved or damaged. Can I imagine that damage was done, which otherwise would not have been? Yep. Can I imagine that beneficial reaction processes were stimulated which otherwise would not have been? Yep. Does any of this matter it matter much? Maybe, maybe not.
I suppose the notion that radiation can trigger effects in cells which would not normally be exposed to such triggers, and thereby cause beneficial effects which otherwise would not occur (such as cleaning up damaged DNA in certain cells which would otherwise not be cleaned up), is not far fetched. I can imagine it is true, FWIW.
Bob A. must be sleeping in this morning.
I’d be careful with this approach. Nuclear power could also come under the regulatory authority of the FDA.
I’m only (half) kidding.
I’ll say it if Rod won’t. Bean counters promoting LNT statistics are not doing science. Science is a holistic set of interconnecting theories each supporting the others. An applicable theory within the domain of biology must respect what we know of cell biology. The LNT hypothesis is orthogonal to everything we know about the biology of cells and organisms.
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