Both the great Truths and the great Falsehoods of the twentieth century lie hidden in the arcane, widely inaccessible, and seemingly mundane domain of the radiation sciences

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Trial of the Cult of Nuclearists: SCAM NUMBER FOURTEEN

What follows is the continuation, in serial form, of a central chapter from my book A Primer in the Art of Deception: The Cult of Nuclearists, Uranium Weapons and Fraudulent Science.

SCAM NUMBER FOURTEEN: Deviously initiate a propaganda campaign to overturn conventional wisdom on dose-response relationships in order to achieve a political objective.

Uranium weapons are being used by the US military in each new overseas conflict. The government is proposing the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons and a possible resumption of testing at the Nevada Test Site. Worldwide, articles are appearing with increasing regularity describing the next incarnation of nuclear power reactors that are destined to solve all our energy needs. Proposed deregulation of the disposal of low-level radioactive waste (see Scam Twelve) is paving the way for a flood of radioactive material to enter the marketplace. Against this backdrop, a pregnant, rhetorical question needs to be posed: Isn’t it a remarkable coincidence that, just now when these advances in the proliferation of nuclear technologies are underway and waste disposal policies are changing, a concerted attempt is afoot to demolish the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis currently embraced by the radiation protection agencies and replace it with a dose-response model that will justify increased low-dose exposure to the public?

For the Cult of Nuclearists, the Supralinear Hypothesis has always been an enemy. It predicts greater health detriment to the population from low doses of radiation than admitted by the radiation protection agencies. But the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis is falling into increasing disfavor as well. Regulatory constraints based on this model are an interference to practices that release increased levels of radiation into the environment and elevate human exposure. Looser waste disposal policies or new weapon development may be stymied if regulatory agencies don’t loosen up a little bit with regard to the amount of exposure allowed to the public. Cleanup of nuclear waste sites will eat up gargantuan amounts of money if current guidelines continue to be enforced. In addition to these inconveniences, the LNTH is undermining the nuclear establishment because it reinforces the public’s fear of radiation. Embodied within its premises is the idea that no dose of radiation is safe, that even the lowest doses are creating a health detriment to a small portion of the population. This leads in an unfortunate direction. Uranium weapons are inducing cancer in some number of those exposed. With the LNTH causing such problems, the Cult of Nuclearists has hatched a brilliant new public relations strategy within the last decade to convince the world that exposure to low levels of radiation is without risk. The public needs to be versed in this latest tactic so as to spot representatives of the Cult of Nuclearists and understand the reason for the current push not only to refute all evidence of detrimental low-level effects but to completely dismantle a century of study in radiotoxicology and radiation protection. What follows is a summary of the various arguments that are appearing with increasing frequency in the media and the scientific journals, implanted there to reassure the public that exposure to low doses of radiation should no longer be a concern.

1) In this clever public relations campaign, the Cult of Nuclearists borrows tactics from its critics and attacks the ICRP. The argument is made that the ICRP has perpetrated a fraud against humanity by basing radiation protection standards on the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis. The validity of this hypothesis for postulating the detrimental health effects of low doses of radiation, so the argument goes, has never been confirmed by experimentation. The only reason the radiation protection agencies adopted this hypothesis was that it was assumed to be overly conservative. The nuclear industry raised no objection because it could easily operate within the safety standards developed on the basis of the LNTH.

2) The LNTH is now entrenched and will be difficult to change. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the anti-nuclear movement gained tremendous momentum. Under its tutelage, the scientific hypothesis that small amounts of radiation MAY be hazardous was corrupted into the political agenda that a small amount of radiation IS hazardous. Spurred by anti-nuclear activists, the public has developed an unreasonable fear of any amount of radiation exposure. If the LNTH is scrapped for a more scientifically sound basis of radiation protection, anti-nuclear organizations will accuse regulatory agencies of jeopardizing public health. The public’s radiophobia unduly hampers the nuclear industry from providing to society the enormous benefits promised by radioactive materials.

3) Research has revealed that the human body has numerous mechanisms for repairing radiation damage or inducing cell death in damaged cells before they have the opportunity to undergo replication. Consequently, some as yet unidentified threshold dose or threshold mechanism must exist before the onset of cancer expression.

4) The DNA in each cell is subject to tens of thousands of damaging events each day from oxidative metabolism and other normal physiological processes. This damage is successfully corrected by normal repair mechanisms. Compared to this normal level of damage, the amount of DNA damage induced by low-level radiation is insignificant. Whatever damage is produced in DNA by low-level radiation will be lost amid the other assaults to DNA and will likely be effectively repaired. Further, since numerous carcinogens are attempting to assault the integrity of DNA in modern humans, there is no way to isolate radiation-induced damage and award it special significance as being more hazardous.

5) The modern understanding of the etiology of cancer testifies against the simple model of carcinogenesis embraced by the radiation protection agencies. Cancer induction is not a straightforward process following inexorably from radiation-induced DNA damage within single cells. The initiation of malignancy is a complex, multistage process requiring several key changes in different parts of the genome. Low doses of radiation cannot produce all the necessary alterations simultaneously. Thus, cells suffering genetic mutation from low-dose radiation must undergo further genetic alterations from other events and/or other sources before evolving into a malignant genotype. Further, carcinogenesis is intercellular. Innumerable iterative steps which are unpredictable in their effect to the overall process take place between the malignant transformation of a single cell and the proliferation of a cancer consisting of billions of cells. Such complexity precludes postulating a simple linear relationship between dose and response.

6) The phenomenon of hormesis testifies to the fact that exposure to low levels of radiation are beneficial to the human body. Hormesis refers to the stimulating and apparently protective effect conferred on living systems by exposure to low doses of radiation and low doses of other toxic substances. A wealth of experimental evidence exists that demonstrate that low levels of radiation can act as a stimulant to a variety of cellular functions, enhancing repair mechanisms and immunological responses.

7) Natural background radiation varies at different points on the Earth by a factor of 10 or more. Populations living in areas of high levels of natural background radiation show no evidence of increased adverse health effects when compared to populations living in areas of lower levels of natural background radiation. Quite obviously, humans possess adaptive mechanisms allowing them to handle increased amounts of radiation with no ill effects. Thus, the addition of a little more human-generated radiation above background levels cannot reasonably be deemed harmful.

8) Low levels of radiation stimulate adaptive mechanisms at both the cellular level and the level of the whole organism. A cell exposed to a high challenging dose evidences less radiation damage if it was previously exposed to a low conditioning dose. The initial dose stimulates adaptive mechanisms that enable the cell to manage greater radiation insult at a later date. Some evidence has been gathered demonstrating that the same phenomenon is manifested in people who live in areas of high natural background radiation. Having adapted to higher-than-average levels of radiation, they give signs of increased resistance to radiation exposure above familiar background levels.

9) The radiation protection agencies throughout the world need to be faulted for ignoring the beneficial effects of low doses of radiation (hormesis) or the zero (nonexistent) effects. By such a one-sided outlook, their recommendations are unbalanced and biased. They emphasize the bad potentialities of radiation exposure and ignore the good. This bias is out of sync with today’s scientific climate, and it serves to prejudice the people against the nuclear industry.

10) Enormous sums of money are being unnecessarily spent annually to assure dosages to the public are below those wrongfully hypothesized as harmful by the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis. Cleanup and decommissioning of nuclear sites worldwide are projected to cost close to $2 trillion. Due to the low levels of radiation involved in many instances, this expenditure will produce negligible public health and safety benefits. The money can be better spent elsewhere.

These 10 points summarize the new paradigm on low-level radiation effects being promulgated by the Cult of Nuclearists. The implications of this paradigm shift, in regard to uranium weaponry, are troubling. Taken to its logical extreme, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq should offer thanks to United States for bombing them with uranium and exposing them to the health-enhancing benefits of low doses of radiation. In its beneficence, US weaponry is stimulating a variety of physiological functions, improving cellular repair mechanisms, and enhancing immunological responses.

The Cult of Nuclearists ardently desires to convince all listeners that it has assembled sufficient proof to warrant a significant overhaul of radiation protection standards as they apply to low-dose exposure. Their argument rests on three major premises which they promote as being thoroughly validated by experimentation. This is a gross misrepresentation, for their conjectures are still open to a wide range of interpretations and have yet to be shown to provide a realistic basis for protecting the population from radiation injury. The first premise: the phenomenon of hormesis testifies to the fact that cellular systems can remain unharmed by low doses of radiation and actually benefit from such exposure. Repair mechanisms within cells are stimulated and immune function is enhanced, conferring a protective benefit to the organism as a whole. The second premise: due to the remarkable efficiency of DNA repair mechanisms within cells, the immune system has the capacity of perfectly repairing every type of damage capable of being produced by low-dose radiation. The third premise: below some threshold dose, radiation causes no ill effect to the organism. The new paradigm reintroduces the concept of a threshold dose for the onset of radiation-induced malignancy. Based on the concepts of hormesis and perfect repair of radiation damage, the evident conclusion is that a yet unidentified dose is required to initiate a series of events that eventually trips some threshold mechanism before radiation-induced damage can escape repair and develop into uncontrolled cell proliferation.

A large body of evidence has accumulated to substantiate the existence of hormesis. But pro-nuclear lobbyists are making unwarranted extrapolations from the phenomenon, claiming that it proves that all low-dose exposure is harmless. Is it not possible that, while some health benefits are conferred, simultaneously some subpopulation of the cells or organisms exposed suffer unrepaired or misrepaired genetic lesions which are precursors to cancer? In agreement with this line of reasoning, Dr. Rosalie Bertell offers the following observation on the subject of hormesis:

"What has been sorely neglected in this public relations battle is that low dose radiation at the cellular level must necessarily affect a large range of molecules in the cellular communication system in any particular cell type. In order to produce one “good” effect, one must endure many other unwanted “bad” effects which will in the long run claim a physiological price perhaps significant, although they evolve to a clinically observable level more slowly" [1,2].

The phenomenon of hormesis, as interesting as it is, is really irrelevant to the topic of radiation protection and is sorely abused by those who reference it when attempting to dismiss the hazards of low-dose exposure. This is made clear by Makhijani, Smith and Thorne in Science for the Vulnerable: Setting Radiation and Multiple Exposure Environmental Health Standards to Protect Those Most at Risk:

There are some who subscribe to the "hormesis" hypothesis, according to which a small amount of radiation could produce some beneficial health effects, by stimulating the immune system for instance. The main evidence put forward for this has been from experiments on mice. According to a summary of the evidence for the hormesis effect, compiled by Charles Waldren, a high dose of radiation produced fewer mutations in some circumstances if preceded by a dose in the 1 to 20 rem range. This supposed protective effect does not appear at lower or higher doses, however, and lasts only for about a day, after which it disappears (Waldren 1999). Such a hormesis effect, even if it exists in humans, has no public health significance, since the cancer risk of the exposure would be very high and any immune system stimulation would be very temporary. This issue has been extensively addressed by the BEIR VII panel and others. The conclusion of the BEIR VII panel was that ‘the assumption that any stimulatory hormetic effects from low doses of ionizing radiation will have a significant health benefit to humans that exceeds potential detrimental effects from the radiation exposure is unwarranted at this time’” [3].

The ECRR offers an interesting observation on the phenomenon of hormesis that requires further investigation. If one plots the hormesis dose-response curve, one gets the following graph:

Reading this graph from left to right, one sees a dipping of effect, initially, as dose increases, before the line turns upward and begins to exhibit the more familiar curve of increasing effect with increasing doses. The region of the dip is the region where the beneficial effects of hormesis are observed. Less cancer is observed within that interval, and the assumed conclusion is that radiation is conferring a beneficial effect. Somehow the organism is deriving benefit from the dose. Interestingly, the curve resembles part of the graph reproduced earlier illustrating the biphasic dose-response model. As stated by the ECRR:

It may be, however, that some of the hormesis evidence results from an artifact. If the dose response in the low range follows a biphasic curve, all that is needed to show an apparent hormetic effect is to leave out the zero dose/zero effect point. It may be that because deductive conclusions from high-dose experiments could not be squared with the possibility of such variation in this low dose region, either the points were interpreted as scatter or they were forced into a hormesis dip by leaving out the lowest dose responses as outliers.”

To translate: The apparent benefit of radiation in the low-dose region emerges as a result of failing to detect or account for evidence of the initial spike in the dose response curve. In this region the most sensitive cells initially undergo increased rates of mutation and cancer induction. With increasing dosage, these cells are killed off and health detriment lessens, and the graph descends vertically. The region of hormesis is misinterpreted as a region where the organism derives benefit. But this dip represents nothing more than a transition from one phase of damage to the system to the next. The same reasoning may explain certain epidemiological studies attempting to prove the beneficial nature of high background radiation because of a lower incidence of cancer. Perhaps a better explanation is that that background radiation has been responsible for selecting for radiation resistance in a population by culling out radiosensitive individuals. The apparent health benefit is nothing more than what remains when low-level radiation has eliminated the most sensitive.

In an attempt to acquit low-level radiation of doing harm, supporters of hormesis frequently cite studies which they claim show lower rates of cancer mortality in geographic areas with higher-than-average levels of natural background radiation. However, their interpretation of these studies is open to question. In the article “Altitude, Radiation, and Mortality from Cancer and Heart Disease,” a number of such studies were analyzed. Under this scrutiny, the reality for hormesis became questionable. According to the authors of this review: “When we adjust linearly for altitude, the negative correlations between mortality and background radiation all disappear or become positive. We see no support here for the claim that ionizing radiation is beneficial at low doses” [4]. After an exhaustive analysis of confirmed low-dose health effects in “Inconsistencies and Open Questions Regarding Low-Dose Health Effects of Ionizing Radiation,” authors Nussbaum and Kohnlein make the following observation:

All of the low-dose studies of radiation effects in human populations reviewed above are inconsistent with hypothesized long-term cancer-reducing effects of such exposures in excess of unavoidable natural background of human populations (hormesis). One can only speculate about the continued popularity of this conjecture among some groups of radiation experts” [5}.

The call to permit higher levels of radiation exposure only makes sense if there is unmistakable proof that a threshold dose must exist for the onset of irreversible radiation injury. This means that the damage produced by doses below this threshold are flawlessly repaired. One hidden assumption in this conjecture is that all people in the population have equivalent immune systems and that there is not a range in immune response between people. If such a range is admitted, then radiation protection standards must address the most vulnerable among the population or the value judgment must be made explicit that these people should be put at heightened risk of radiation induced illness so that the rest of the population can benefit. But there is a deeper problem with the conjecture of perfect repair. Evidence exists that the immune system makes mistakes when repairing DNA lesions. In chapter 18 of his book Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure, Gofman presents a powerful argument for why irreversible genetic damage, and thus cancer induction, can occur at even the lowest levels of exposure. His argument is based on the fact that the cellular mechanisms for repairing carcinogenic injuries do not operate flawlessly. Thus, “repair” is at the heart of the threshold issue:

The radiation-induced cancers arising from the unrepaired lesions at low doses do not wear a little flag identifying them as any different from cancers induced by higher doses of radiation, or induced by causes entirely unrelated to radiation. Therefore, threshold proponents cannot argue that the cancers arising from the lowest conceivable doses of radiation will somehow be eliminated by the immune system or any other bodily defenses against cancer. Such an argument would require the elimination of cancer in general by such defenses. Instead, we observe that cancer is a major killer (roughly 15-20% of many populations). So the proposition would lead to a non-credible consequence, and must be rejected. This means that repair is the key” {6}.

Gofman’s analysis proceeds by first reviewing nine reputable low-dose studies: the Nova Scotia Fluoroscopy Study, the Israeli Scalp-Irradiation Study, the Massachusetts Fluoroscopy study, the Canadian Fluoroscopy Study, the Stewart In-Utero Series, the MacMahon In-Utero Series, the British Luminizer Study, the Harvey Twins In-Utero Series, and the Israeli Breast-Cancer in Scalp-Irradiation Study. These studies involved a range of exposures from 9.0 rads down to 0.1 rad which Gofman translates into 12 tracks per nucleus per exposure down to 0.29 tracks per nucleus. His argument is that if flawless repair exists at some threshold dose, every carcinogenic lesion will be successfully undone below that dose and no excess cancers will be induced. However, in every study an excess of cancers was in evidence. Gofman summarizes the conclusion of this line of reasoning as follows:

“1. One primary ionization track is the least possible disturbance which can occur at the cellular level from ionizing radiation. Without a track, there is no dose at all.

2. Every primary ionization track has a chance of inducing cancer by inducing carcinogenic injuries; it needs no help from any other track.

3. This means that there is no conceivable dose or dose-rate which can be safe, unless (A) the repair system always successfully undoes every carcinogenic lesion, when the dose or dose-rate is sufficiently low, or (B) every failure of the repair system, at low doses, is always successfully eliminated by some post-repair defense system.

4. Human epidemiological evidence shows that the repair system for radiation-induced carcinogenic lesions has a failure rate even under minimal strain.

5. Observation and logic show that the post-repair defense systems (for instance, the immune system) cannot possibly be perfect with respect to providing a safe dose or dose-rate of ionizing radiation.

It follows that there is no safe dose or dose-rate of ionizing radiation, with respect to induction of human cancer. The risk is related to dose, right down to zero dose.”


[1] Calabrese E.J. (ed.). Biological Effects of Low Level Exposures to Chemicals and Radiation. London: Lewis Publishers; 1992.

[2] Bertell R. Limitations of the ICRP Recommendations for Worker and Public Protection from Ionizing Radiation. For Presentation at the STOA Workshop: Survey and Evaluation of Criticism of Basic Safety Standards for the Protection of Workers and the Public against Ionizing Radiation. Brussels: European Parliament, February 5, 1998a.

[3] Makhijani A., Smith B., Thorne M. Science for the Vulnerable: Setting Radiation and Multiple Exposure Environmental Health Standards to Protect Those Most at Risk. Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. October 2006.

[4] Weinberg C.R., Brown K.G., Hoel D.G. Altitude, Radiation, and Mortality from Cancer and Heart Disease. Radiation Research. 1987; 112:381-390.

[5] Nussbaum R.H., Kohnlein W. Inconsistencies and Open Questions Regarding Low-Dose Health Effects of Ionizing Radiation. Environmental Health Perspectives. 1994; 102(8):656-667.

[6] Gofman J.W. Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure: An Independent Analysis. San Francisco: Committee for Nuclear Responsibility; 1990.