Radiation -- the public should beware of scare tactics

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"Radiation" or its equivalent has become one of the scare words of human language. Indeed, strict safety standards are essential. Physicist-author Ralph Lapp, however, is right to decry the widely publicized and exaggerated alarms raised by a few experts over certain situations involving very low radiation levels where there is little evidence that danger exists. These experts, which he calls "extremists representing a tiny minority within the [scientific] community," often seem to act more out of emotion than reason.

Lapp examines several such cases in a recent essay in New Scientist.

For example, there was the concern over what was called "an alarming rate of cancer deaths" among Portsmouth (N.H.) Naval Shipyard workers associated with submarine reactors. This was expressed by Thomas Najarian of the Boston Veterans Administration Hospital and the Boston Globe in 1978. Among other things, leukemia-related deaths were reported to be five times the number to be expected normally. Last December, the National Institutes of Safety and Health announced they could find no such calamity. "This study had over a 99 percent probability of detecting the fivefold risk of leukemia reported by Najarian," they noted, ". . . yet no excess was found." Nonetheless, Najarian's "findings" are still used in antinuclear-power propaganda.

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To cite another case, Boston pediatrician Helen Caldicott campaigns against nuclear power partly by saying: "There is no 'safe' amount of radioactive material or dose of radiation . . . it takes only one radioactive atom, one cell , and one gene to initiate the cancer or mutation cycle." Such a statement is needlessly frightening, for, as Lapp points out, "the average person undergoes 800 million [atomic] disintegrations every day." He explains that "the human body is actually a radioactive source as a result of ingestion of food and drink that come from a mildly radioactive Earth."

Humans have adapted to this so-called natural radioactive background over millions of years. The small, carefully regulated emissions of radioactivity from nuclear power plants do not add significantly to that background, as far as is known today, and in the judgment of the majority of expert bodies that have examined this issue. Indeed, Lapp notes, "In 1981, the radiation exposure of all Americans to 73 operating reactors is only one hundred thousandth of the medical [X-ray] exposure."

Those few vocal experts who dissent from the majority judgment are not necessarily wrong because they are in the minority. But this does not necessarily make them wiser than the majority, either. The point is they express their dissent with a certainty and a vehemence that they cannot support scientifically. This can raise fear that only clouds the issue and of which both the media and the public should be wary.

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