TCS Daily


Nothing New Under This Sun

By Herbert Inhaber - March 7, 2002 12:00 AM

Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated, Mark Twain said in response to a premature obituary. About the same can be said about a recent report from Reuters titled "Nuke Test Fallout Caused 15,000 U.S. Deaths."

The story was based on a report by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, not hitherto noted for its expertise in radiation matters. According to the report, nuclear tests from 1946 to the late 1990s (the Chinese were the last to test above-ground) produced fallout. Moreover, almost everyone ingested some of it either through breathing or eating food that had some of it inside.

That's all well and good. The New York Times headline for the story said, "Almost All in U.S. Have Been Exposed to Fallout, Study Finds." I would go them one better. I would write it as "Almost Everyone on Earth - and for Generations to Come - Has Been, or Will be, Exposed to Fallout." Yes, it's still coming down.

But here's where the leap of faith comes in on the part of the CDC authors. They assume so-called "collective dose," and use it to calculate the number of deaths. Dealing in radiation units is too complicated for a brief piece, so I will illustrate the collective dose concept with something we're all familiar with - aspirin.

Suppose each of the approximately 200 million adults in the U.S. takes one aspirin tonight. Now suppose 100 aspirins are enough to kill one person. (Please don't try this at home). If we divide 200 million by 100, this implies that there should be two million corpses in the morning - but of course, there won't be.

In the same way, almost everyone in the U.S. got a very small dose of radiation from nuclear fallout. Most of the dose was due to Russian tests, which were usually much dirtier than those conducted in this country. Some of the so-called "downwinders" -- those living in Utah downwind from the Nevada tests -- did get more than average.

The authors apparently multiplied the total population by the tiny doses (measured in micro-rem, or millionth of a radiation equivalent man) most people received, and divided by the estimated rems needed to kill a person by radiation. Voila - here's the number. If these calculations are valid, I would advise all readers to hide their aspirin bottles.

The CDC is supposed to come up with new research, not rehash old discredited results. I remember reading a book by Linus Pauling, the famed chemist and anti-war activist, written in the 1950s, in which he came to about the same conclusions. Although he knew his chemistry, he was as wrong as the CDC authors. You simply can't multiply tiny doses by huge populations and find valid results.

Putting it another way: There are no names to attach to the alleged 15,000 victims. None of them - and I can state this without fear of contradiction - had "fallout" listed as their cause of death.

It is true that radiation can cause cancers. But any cancers that the fallout might have caused will be lost in the statistical noise of cancer data. For example, suppose fallout was estimated to cause a 0.1% increase in stomach cancer cases. But if stomach cancer cases rise and fall nationally about 3% per year for unknown reasons, there is no way that such a small fallout effect could be detected.

Some pollutants can cause a rare disease, and then can be identified. For example, some years back workers in a vinyl chloride plant developed a rare brain tumor. It was then obvious that their affliction was due to fumes in the plant, and not a statistical artifact. Fallout could cause different types of cancers, none of which is mostly attributable to radiation.

Scientists in the last few decades have found through many experiments that low-dose radiation may actually have some benefits. Certain bacteria and lab animals actually live longer when exposed to small amounts of radiation. The effect is called hormesis, and has been documented in hundreds of studies. This does not mean that we should linger in front of an X-ray machine more than we have to. Conversely, we shouldn't avoid all X-rays, as some do now because of fear of radiation.

It is likely that, as we learn more about molecular biology, we will understand why hormesis takes place, and whether it is applicable to humans. If it isn't, we should all send get-well cards to those who attended the Salt Lake City Olympic Games. Since they were held at an approximate elevation of about 4400 feet, the spectators there received much more cosmic rays from outer space than Americans living at sea level. Bet this wasn't in the travel brochures.

The spectators probably got more radiation from this source than most Americans from the fallout of the past decades. Do we need another CDC report on this? Let them stick with something they know.

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