Today, there is still a widespread knee-jerk reaction to all forms and levels of radiation. Fear of the nuclear power industry remains rampant, and disasters at the likes of Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima, have served to further instill widespread terror about exposure to all forms of radiation. Truthfully, what you have been told about radiation is not as cut and dried as you might think, and even mainstream media sources, including The Wall Street Journal, are now catching onto the fact that low-level radiation can actually have health benefits.
Here, we debunk some myths about radiation you may be all too familiar with.
Myth: Radiation poisoning as an effect of the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima caused many immediate deaths, and many more subsequent deaths from induced cancers.
Facts: Survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have not died in droves from radiation-induced cancers. There were, indeed, many immediate deaths, from the heat of the blast and from flying debris. There were, as we now know should have been expected, large numbers of people near the bombs who subsequently developed radiologically-induced cancers. It is also true, however, that there were large numbers of people who did not develop radiologically-induced cancers. The size of this latter group has been a surprise to most scientists. Findings of several studies show that when exposure to radiation was at points distant from the blasts, radiation absorption was minimal, and leukemia deaths among these A-bomb survivors was below normal. This is where the data gets interesting: minimally exposed survivors haven’t just not died of leukemia or other cancers; they haven’t been dying for any reason. They’re healthier than the Japanese population who lived far away from the blast and received no exposure.
Dr. Sohei Kondo, in 1993, published Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation, in which he reported findings of a significantly lower death rate for those who had been exposed to low levels of the radiation fall-out than for those who had no exposure at all. As well, no adverse genetic effects in the progeny of the minimally exposed population have been detected during sixty years of study.
To put radiation exposure dosage from the bombs in contemporary perspective, according to Christopher Windham, it is now understood that the radiation dose from a full-body medical scan today can be almost as high as the dose received by some of the survivors of the bomb.
Myth: Presence of radon in homes is correlative with cancer, especially lung cancer. Based on this premise, it has been believed that if you have high radon levels in your home, it is imperative that you take steps to remove it.
Fact: High radon levels in homes is predictive of LOWERED lung cancer (and all other cancer) rates. If you have high radon levels measured in your home, you should know that the odds of your being blessed with good health are significantly increased.
Myth: The accident at Chernobyl killed thousands of people and disabled millions.
Facts: Thirty workers and firefighters at the plant were killed. But a 16-year investigation by the UN and World Health Organization concluded that there were no public radiation deaths or injuries. No significant increase in any illness resulted, except for 2000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer, a highly treatable disease from which there have been few, if any, deaths. Fear of radiation led to unnecessary evacuation of large population groups, causing unemployment, depression, alcoholism and suicides. In the year after the accident, there were 100,000 additional abortions downwind of the accident because of unwarranted fear of bearing a “nuclear mutant.” Deformed “Chernobyl victims” used to raise money for relief were later found to be a scam—unrelated to the accident. Some were from sufficiently far away from Chernobyl that they could not have been affected; others were deformed long before the accident.
Myth: Cancer rates go up as altitude goes up because we are exposed to more cosmic radiation as our elevation increases.
Facts: Just the opposite is true. Live high, live longer: Those who live in areas with high background radiation live longer than those who live in low background radiation areas (high altitude Colorado is best; low altitude southeast U.S. is worse).
Myth: The quantity of nuclear waste is so great and its toxic effect so long-lasting that there is no safe method of disposal.
Facts: Nuclear plants produce less than a millionth of the volume of waste from an equivalent coal-fired plant. Waste can be put into sealed drums and controlled, rather than dumped into the environment. The 50,000 tons of radwaste destined for Yucca Mountain was produced by all 103 U.S. nuclear plants over the past 40 years. This is less than 2 pounds per person served for the whole 40 years. This is small compared to wastes produced by most other industries, or even our homes. The waste volumes associated with construction and operation of solar, wind, and other renewables are larger, on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, than nuclear wastes.
Myth: Radioactive waste stays toxic for thousands of years. Humanity has never faced such a long-term hazard.
Facts: Radioactive waste continually decreases in toxicity, whereas other toxic wastes like mercury, lead, arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium, etc. retain full toxicity forever. After 500 years, you could safely eat a pound of radioactive waste. Currently, we bury it 2000 feet underground. The top 2000 feet of U.S. soil contain millions of times more lethal doses of natural poisons than all the nuclear power waste together. We make 10,000 times more lethal doses of chlorine each year, and put it in our drinking water to kill germs.
Myth: Nuclear power is an especially unforgiving technology. A momentary slip-up, and catastrophe ensues.
Facts: Just the opposite. Nuclear plants are uniquely robust. They can resist earthquakes, hurricanes, power loss, sabotage and operator errors. Even if the core were to melt, even with containment breached, analyses and tests show that few, if any persons would be seriously injured or killed. Hundreds of nuclear plants worldwide, operating for decades, have confirmed this.
Myth: Marie Curie died of radiation poisoning at a young age.
Fact: Dr. Curie was concentrating radioactive ores in a huge caldron that was so potent that she could literally read at night by the radioactive glow. (Think what she was inhaling.) During WWI, she worked on the wounded brought in freshly from the battlefield, holding the film with her bare hands as X-rays were taken. She was exposed to lots of radiation—it wasn’t even measured until detection instruments were invented, developed and deployed. Yet, she still out-lived the normal life-span for that period of time – in 1934, the average age of death was 61; Curie lived until 66.