Nuclear Radiation

Almost two decades ago, MIT Press published a book I co-edited called Phantom Risk: Scientific Inference and the Law. The meat of the book is a series of essays by leading scientists reviewing the scientific literature regarding various allegedly toxic exposures that had led to litigation.

Several chapters dealt with the risks of low-level nuclear radiation exposure, and it became clear from reading those chapters that there was a vast difference in public perception of these risks, and the great weight of scientific opinion. One chapter, for example, revealed that residents of the American desert West who were exposed to radiation from nuclear tests after World War II actually had lower mortality rates than did the public as a whole. While this lower rate was attributed to the clean lifestyles of a disproportionately Mormon population, there was no indication of excess mortality from radiation. Similarly, an ongoing study of residents of the area surrounding Three Mile Island found no evidence of increased cancer rates or birth defects, though it was too early to judge very long-term effects.

A year or so after the book appeared, I received a book in the mail authored by a Japanese scientist, in English. The book claimed that residents on the outskirts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who received low levels of radiation exposure, actually had lower mortality rates than other Japanese. The author hypothesized that not only did the dose make the poison with regard to nuclear radiation, but that low-level exposure may in fact have a protective effect on cells.

I didn’t know anything about the author or the publisher, so I didn’t put much stock in it. But I’ve seen several other references over the years to the idea that low level exposure to nuclear radiation is not only not harmful, but may be helpful. I haven’t followed the issue closely, but I take it that this is a minority view, but not one deemed crazy within the relevant community of scientists. If we have readers with expertise in this area, please chime in below in the comments.

Regardless, even if low-level radiation exposure is marginally harmful, studies like those of Americans in the desert West seem to suggest that it’s nothing to get hysterical about.