Everyone from President Barack Obama on down claims radiation reaching the United States from Japan is no health threat. The real science, however, begs a second opinion.
Japanese reactors hold 1,000 times more radiation than the bombs dropped over Hiroshima. Already 10-60 percent of the pollution over California comes from Asia. Half the mercury in our atmosphere originates in China, also 5,000 miles away. A week after a nuclear weapons' test in China, iodine 131 was detected in thyroid glands of deer in Colorado.
The idea that a threshold exists, or of a safe level of radiation for human exposure, unraveled in the 1950s when research showed one pelvic x-ray in a pregnant woman could double the rate of childhood leukemia in her baby. The risk was 10 times higher if exposure occurred in the first three months of pregnancy.
A new medical concept has emerged called "fetal origins of disease," drawing from evidence that many adult diseases can have their origins in the first weeks after conception from environmental insults disrupting embryonic development. It is now established medical advice that for the first three months pregnant women should avoid any x-rays, medicines or chemicals, no matter how small the dose, unless absolutely necessary.
"Epigenetics" is a term integral to fetal origins of disease, referring to chemical attachments to genes that turn them on or off inappropriately and have consequences similar to broken genetic bonds. Unimaginably small doses of chemicals, air pollution, cigarette smoke and radiation can cause epigenetic changes within minutes after exposure and be passed on to subsequent generations.
The 14,000 doctors in the Endocrine Society warned that "even infinitesimally low levels of exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, indeed, any level of exposure at all, may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses." If there is no safe level of hormone mimicking chemicals for a fetus, then the concept is likely to be equally true of more toxic radioactive elements drifting over from Japan, some of which may also act as endocrine disrupters.
Many epidemiologic studies show that extremely low doses of radiation increase the incidence of childhood cancers, low birth-weight babies, premature births, infant mortality, birth defects and even diminished intelligence. Just two abdominal x-rays in a male can slightly increase the chance of his future children developing leukemia. Human cells can repair themselves from some radiation damage, but the rapidly growing cells in a fetus may divide before repair can occur, negating the body's defense mechanism and replicating the damage.
Comforting statements about the safety of low radiation are not even accurate for adults. Small increases in risk per individual have immense consequences in the aggregate. When low risk is accepted for billions of people, there will still be millions of victims. New research on risks of x-rays illustrate the point.
Radiation from CT coronary scans is considered low, but it causes cancer in one of every 270 40-year-old women who receive the scan. Annually, 29,000 cancers are caused by the 70 million CT scans done in the United States. Low dose dental x-rays more than double the rate of thyroid cancer. Those exposed to repeated dental x-rays have an even higher risk of thyroid cancer.
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Properly functioning nuclear plants emit low radiation into nearby water and atmosphere, which can be inhaled directly or ingested from soil contact, plants or cow's milk. Many studies confirm higher rates of cancers such as childhood leukemia, breast and thyroid cancer among people who live in the same counties as nuclear plants and among nuclear workers.
Beginning with Madam Curie, the story of nuclear power is one where the risks of radiation have been consistently miscalculated or misrepresented. Utah downwinders should know that better than anyone. This could be the latest chapter in that tragic story, when once again we are told not to worry.
Dr. Brian Moench is President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.