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Thursday, February 02, 2006

Politically Incorrect Science- "Virtue of Radiation"?

My dad got "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science" for Christmas. I just read it, and I found it very interesting, so I thought I would start a series of posts on it. One particularly interesting section was on radiation, nuclear power, and hormesis. I will attempt to outline the argument.

Our nation's policies concerning radiation are based on linear theories. These state that either low doses of radiation are harmful or have no effect. However, there is another theory known as hormesis. Hormesis is "any stimulatory or beneficial effect, induced by low doses of an agent, that can not be predicted by the extrapolation of detrimental or lethal effects induced by high doses of the same agent. " This basically means that what is harmful in high doses may be beneficial in small doses.

This theory holds true for things such as alcohol, and caffeine, and is also the theory behind weight-building. According to the book, the biggest difference between these theories is that hormesis is experimentally observed, but the lower sections of the linear theories are simply continuations of the line, in which measurements have not been made, or have been ignored.

There have been studies that have shown that low doses of radiation may protect against cancer by activating cells' natural defense mechanisms. One study of tuberculosis patients who had multiple chest x-rays found that they had fewer cases of breast cancer than would have been expected. In 1997, the Washington Post said, "In Japan, site of the world's only nuclear attacks, radiation victims are outliving their peers... As expected, the people closest to ground zero have died in high numbers of cancers that began in a white hot flash of nuclear radiation. But as one moves further from the blast site, the death rate plunges until it actually dips below the baseline." Another study of 700,000 shipyard workers, including 108,00 who had been exposed to radiation when working with nuclear reactors in Navy vessels, found that the irradiated workers "had 24 percent lower death rates and 25 percent lower cancer mortality than the unexposed workers."

As an interesting side-note, Ralph Nader once said that a pound of plutonium could cause eight billion cancers. In response, Bernard L. Cohen, "an emeritus professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh offered to eat as much plutonium as Nader would eat of caffeine. " However, no major TV networks were interested.

Using this questionable linear theory as the basis of our policies has had large consequences. It has derailed the switch to nuclear power, and has made us dependent on coal to produce energy, which is much more environmentally harmful.

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