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

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Trial of the Cult of Nuclearists: SCAM NUMBER THIRTY-THREE

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 THIRTY-THREE: Cloud thinking on the biological effects of human-generated low-level radiation with the claim that populations living in areas of high Natural Background Radiation are no more at risk from radiation-induced injury than people living in areas of low Natural Background Radiation.

Those who claim that emissions of radiation into the environment are harmless hold in their hand one seemingly unbeatable trump card. If low doses of radiation are hazardous, they argue, then people living in areas of high Natural Background Radiation should suffer from higher rates of cancer than people living in areas where NBR is low. The central importance of this argument is highlighted by Chris Busby in his book Wings of Death:

Finally, despite considerable evidence of low-level radiation effects from man-made pollutants, including cancer clusters near nuclear installations such as Sellafield, there has never been a plausible theory of how such effects can be produced at levels below those we are exposed to from Natural Background Radiation. This is the rock on which the nuclear castle is built: no progress in the crucial debate can be made without addressing the problem that cancer rates in populations exposed to widely different background radiation levels do not differ significantly” [1].

In previous sections of this chapter, various aspects of this highly important issue have been addressed. We have noted that likening the effects of Natural Background Radiation, which contributes one hit per year to the nucleus of each cell in the body, to man-made hot particles, which can be responsible for repetitive hits to the nuclei of a small volume of cells, is a false analogy. We have further explored how man-made radioactive pollutants differ from Natural Background Radiation in their ability to exploit vulnerabilities in biological systems. Busby’s Second Event theory and the Petkau Effect are examples of how low doses of certain types of internal emitters can cause harm to cells in ways that NBR cannot. What remains to be addressed are the epidemiological studies themselves. What evidence has led proponents of nuclear pollution to the conclusion that the risk of cancer is the same for people living in areas with different levels of Natural Background Radiation?

The ECRR cites 10 major epidemiological studies that have shaped current understanding of the consequences to health from living in areas of high NBR. Contrary to the claims of the Cult of Nuclearists, seven of these studies demonstrated increased incidence of chromosome defects in the study population. The remaining three studies didn’t investigate this type of aberration. In addition, five of the studies revealed elevated rates of cancer. A study in Japan revealed increases in stomach and liver cancer. Of two studies in Iowa, one uncovered a 24% increase in bone cancer and the other demonstrated a 68% increase in lung cancer. A study in Brittany revealed a 132% increase in stomach cancer. Finally, a study from Scotland testified to a 60% higher rate of leukemia. Despite this evidence of increased cancer risk in areas of high Natural Background Radiation, the ECRR is cautious in interpreting the results.

For a number of reasons, it is uncertain how the results of these studies can inform discussion about risk from radiation exposure. First, for many of these studies, the populations suffer stresses associated with living in the Third World where cancer is not a major cause of death owing to earlier competing causes and the generally shorter lifespan. In addition, population natural selection for radiation resistance over a long period may be expected to confound any attempt to find a suitable control group: thus the repair efficiency for cancer-inducing lesions in genes would be expected higher in the exposed populations than the controls. In addition, the considerable amount of evidence which shows that different populations have different genetic susceptibility to cancer of different sites makes it impossible to draw any universally applicable conclusions from background radiation studies” [2}.

The ECRR expresses skepticism that definitive conclusions can be reached on the effects of low-dose radiation from the comparison of people living in areas of high and low Natural Background Radiation. The reasons for this are as follows:

1) Disadvantaged populations occupy many of the areas of high NBR. Competing causes of death may claim lives prior to the advent of radiation-induced cancer. This would have the effect of lowering the cancer rate in a population and making high levels of NBR appear less hazardous.

2) Accurate health data is not available in many areas of high NBR. Thus, the true rates of cancer in the population are not ascertainable.

3) Valid epidemiological studies are hampered by an inability to find genetically comparable populations to serve as suitable control groups.

4) Over generations, increased radiation resistance will have been bred into members of a population exposed to high NBR due to natural selection. Consequently, cancer rates in these areas would be lower.

5) Global fallout from weapon testing must be factored into any consideration of the health effects of Natural Background Radiation. Different geographical locations have been contaminated by different levels of fallout. This complicates any attempt to discern the part played by NBR on cancer rates.

6) Due to the low levels of radiation being studied and the low cancer rates predicted for these dosages, the determination of cancer rates due to NBR relative to other possible causes is highly unlikely.

In the southern Indian state of Kerala, a population of several thousand people resides on a strip of land 10 km by 1 km that has some of the highest levels of natural radioactivity of any place on Earth. This heightened radioactivity is caused by an abundance in the soil of the mineral monazite, which contains 10% thorium phosphate. As a consequence, the population receives an exposure to NBR that is two times the world average. In the article Can ICRP Be Trusted to Set Radiation Exposure Standards?, Rosalie Bertell speaks about Kerala and offers some important insights that challenge the nuclear industry’s claim that high levels of NBR are not hazardous to health:

Recently the BEIR Reports have used atomic bomb data to support their theory that humans have undetectable genetic damage from the atomic bombs. As early as 1957, the World Health Organization called together a Committee to study the genetic effects of radiation and to recommend protection of the human gene pool. In the publication by this committee, Kerala, India, was identified as the best place to study the genetic effects of chronic radiation exposure over several generations. To date, the nuclear establishment has not undertaken a serious study of this population, indicating their lack of concern for genetic damage. In one study, undertaken for another purpose, the authors noted that the exposed population of Kerala had an abnormally high rate of Down’s Syndrome. Researchers also found significantly high levels of broken chromosomes in the exposed group. In 1988, with the help of Indian researchers, I agreed to act as scientific advisor to a study of the people of Kerala. Researchers found that they were the first group to interview and examine the population, although the nuclear industry often uses Kerala as its example to ”prove” that low-level radiation is harmless.

We now have measurements of the background radiation at grid points all through the contaminated area, detailed information on about 32,000 exposed households and matched control households not living on contaminated sand, and information on 92,000 pregnancies. Our preliminary findings are that the rate of Down’s Syndrome is 3 to 4 times higher in families living on the radioactive sand than for control families. Other problems which were more than doubled for the radiation-exposed group were congenital blindness and deafness, epilepsy, malformation of long bones, childlessness (couples who wanted to have children but could not), and various kinds and degrees of mental retardation. In the communities living on the contaminated soil, every one of the so-called sentinel mutations, rare genetic damage, was found. This was not true for the matched controls” [3].

There are radiobiologists who do not believe in the necessity of a threshold dose for the onset of radiation injury and who recognize Natural Background Radiation as the source for a small percentage of the cancers suffered by the global population. From their point of view, the random hits from NBR occasionally spawn a cancer that escapes immune system surveillance. The inescapable conclusion is that some small number of cancers are the inevitable price paid by humanity for simply dwelling on planet Earth. From this perspective, any additional radiation liberated into the environment increases background levels and contributes to an increase in the cancer rate. Recent evidence for this concern was presented in the magazine New Scientist in an article entitled “Background Radiation Enough to Trigger Cancer” [4]. The article reviewed research conducted by Keith Baverstock of the World Health Organization’s European Center for Environment and Health, in Bonn, and Paivi Kurttio of the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, in Helsinki. Investigating the incidence of papillary thyroid cancer among the children of Europe as a result of the accident at Chernobyl and from medical x-rays, the researchers determined that the nine milligrays of natural radiation absorbed by the average child’s thyroid during the first nine years of life would cause one or two cancers per million children each year. This predicted rate matches the incidence of the disease of children under the age of 15 in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. This study followed an earlier one conducted by Mark Little, a medical statistician at Imperial College in London. Using data from the A-bomb survivors, Little calculated that between six and sixteen percent of the cases of papillary thyroid cancer were caused by Natural Background Radiation. The cause(s) of the remaining cases was never determined.

Plenty of studies have been done that implicate exposure to background levels of radiation with increased incidence of cancer. Those who claim no such evidence exist are liars. In the article, “Inconsistencies and Open Questions Regarding Low-Dose Health Effects of Ionizing Radiation”, Nussbaum and Kohnlein provide the following information:

A Birmingham team of scientists was able to correlate the very large database on the geographical distribution of childhood cancers in Great Britain of the OSCC [Oxford Survey of Childhood Cancer] with accurate measurements of terrestrial gamma-ray dose rates over a 100 km grid covering England, Scotland and Wales (Knox et al.). The terrestrial doses for that area vary by up to a factor of five, between about 15 nGy/hr and 80 nGy/hr (0.013-0.070 cGy annually). This study suggests that “background radiation might be an element of the causal chain of the majority of childhood cancers” (Knox et al.). It is noteworthy that a simple regression analysis of childhood cancers found a negative correlation with dose, in qualitative agreement with the above-mentioned studies with inadequate controls for confounding factors that continue to be cited in support of radiation hormesis. When confounding socioeconomic factors, identified as being strongly correlated with childhood cancer mortality, were included in the OSCC analysis, the association with background dose turned significantly positive.

Consistent with the British OSCC results, a recent US study also found a significant association between childhood cancer incidence and a variation in annual external background gamma-ray dose rate by nearly a factor of two (0.05-0.092 cGy per year) over an area within a radius of approximately 10 miles from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. On the basis of risk factors derived from the A-bomb survivor study, no detectable trend in cancer among children should have been found from variations in background exposures of such small magnitude. This study, however, found a 50% increase in risk of cancer for children under 15 years with every 0.01 cGy increase in estimated annual background gamma-ray dose (Hatch and Susser). As in the British background study above, the high sensitivity to radiation is most likely related to exposures during the earliest fetal stages of development” [5].


[1] Busby C. Wings of Death: Nuclear Pollution and Human Health. Aberystwyth, Wales: Green Audit Books, Green Audit (Wales) Ltd; 1995.

[2] European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR). Recommendations of the European Committee on Radiation Risk: the Health Effects of Ionising Radiation Exposure at Low Doses for Radiation Protection Purposes. Regulators' Edition. Brussels; 2003.

[3] Bertell R. Can ICRP Be Trusted to Set Radiation Exposure Standards? Osaka Symposim; August 13, 1995.

[4] Edwards R. Background Radiation Enough to Trigger Cancer. New Scientist. January 11, 2003. 177:2377.

[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.