Article #2: Radiation Hazards
“The hazards of Everyday Radiation,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal (Science Digest, 4/84): “There is no doubt that radiation can trigger cancer. Today, Americans are exposed to more low-level radiation than ever before. We get it from X rays or while traveling in an airplane. It seeps from nuclear power plants, from the homes we live in. It rises from the ground beneath us and descends from the sky above. Some scientists say this isn’t a serious threat, but others say that if we don’t guard against further radiation exposure, we may be saddled with a cancer rate of epidemic proportions. All agree there is no such thing as ‘safe’ radiation. Many radiation-induced tumors don’t appear until 35 to 40 years after exposure; evidence suggests cumulative lifetime exposure also affects tumor growth.
“The loudest voice crying disaster belongs to John Gofman, professor emeritus at the University of California. Gofman discovered uranium 233 with Glenn Seaborg in 1941; he isolated the world’s first workable quantity of plutonium for the Manhattan Project; and so on. 1983 had an updated version of his 908-page analysis of radiation risks, Radiation and Human Health (New York, Pantheon books). It contains some terrifying predictions. For example, Gofman estimates that if, in the U.S., we were to produce our energy fully from plutonium and could contain the substance with 99.99% effectiveness, we’d still produce tens of thousands of deaths from cancer annually. He predicts that 20% of workers in nuclear plants exposed to only one rad a year for 20 years will die prematurely from cancer. He also estimates that plutonium fallout from all the nuclear weapons testing to date will produce 950,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide. (Italics mine. Imagine what a “surprise lottery” that amounts to for so many of us.) Gorman bases his conclusions on a variety of studies, beginning with those made on the 82,000 survivors of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Among those survivors, at first, there seemed to be no signs of cancer. But in the early 1950s, there was a rise in leukemia among the survivors and in birth defects among their children. In the early 1960s, there was a slight rise in the number of tumors, not all of them cancerous. In 1974, the U.S. National Cancer Institute calculated that only 100 of the 82,000 survivors had died from cancer caused by radiation exposure—not a very impressive number. But, in the past decade, the cancer rate among survivors has continued to rise. It is now believed that the survivors received an average of 25-30 rads of radiation, or a mean of 28 rads, and, says Gofman, many are surprised to find that the average dose of the exposed Japanese atom bomb survivors is comparable to that received during some common diagnostic exams in American medicine.” (Keep in mind that today’s weapons are much stronger too, but it’s still interesting to note how quickly we could accumulate doses like the Japanese in our day-to-day life.) Remember, again, this is our purpose of discussing another unpleasant item from our Pandora’s Box: because we live in these times we, as “healers,” must be aware of how all factors interrelate to influence life on earth, and that certainly includes radiation and its effects. Again, our lesson’s space cannot cover what is a whole topic in itself, but this serves to remind us to keep our eyes open (in working with people to attain good health) for the things we can’t see, such as radiation or other exposure to toxins or chemicals, as well as looking out for dietary factors in physical symptoms and manifestations of the body’s healing process. This is obviously difficult work—to assess a person’s state of health in terms of so many possible types of (invisible) exposure-it requires a good strong sense of intuition and understanding. There is no one concrete, definitive way to “compute” a person’s total lifestyle impacts—this skill can’t really be taught—although much information can be shared, and much knowledge can be taught/learned, we must still develop this in ourselves, as best we can. If we are sensitive and sincere, we can tune ourselves in to the nonphysical world “beyond” our bodies. (Remember, too, the admonition to heal thyself.)
Gofman continues: “In light of these numbers, and given the rising cancer rate among the survivors, the dosage of radiation given to most Americans in diagnostic x-ray exams is unnecessarily high, and if the dosage were cut by one-third, we’d avoid 1,000,000 deaths over the next 30 years.” Some scientists think he overestimated risks, but common sense tells me I’d rather overestimate a risk and be more cautious than to take chances, since no one seems to agree on definite risk factors. I for one would prefer not to become a guinea pig or a future statistic. Any figure given for “the number of deaths possible in 30 years” is bound to be somewhat arbitrary, whether low or high, because unpredictable factors can enter into our predictions later. More important than the exact numbers of “nameless victims” counted is the remedying of problems before more victims are found.
One of the common things said by people faced with life-threatening health crises is “that you never think it’ll happen to you” or “you never realize what it’s like till it’s happened to you, or someone you know” … Something has to “bring it all home” before most of us realize (and or admit) it’s time to do some changing. When the roulette wheel in this “surprise” lottery spins, and you’re holding your breath that your number won’t come up, it becomes more and more evident that the statistics are not nameless or faceless anymore. We all have a chance in this one, whether we like it or not, so we may as well learn how to really play the game, instead of letting someone else spin the wheel while we wait for our number to come up “before our time.”
It’s better to be alert, awake and ever-watchful of our earth’s rhythms, sensitive to her very heartbeat itself. When “experts” disagree on a problem’s details, the advantage is that we then question their opinions. No truths are finite and stationary—everything is in the process of change, subject to constant alteration. Vigilance on our part also helps us to see through patronizing assurances lightly tossed our way by the no-risk and low-risk radiation salespersons who’d rather not rock the boat, and whose sources of funding often encourage low-risk assessments that protect manufacturers and their investments.
Gofman writes, “in a fully developed ‘nuclear economy,’ radon gas coming from the refuse left over after mining uranium should lead to 3.9 lung-cancer deaths per year in an equilibrium population of 250 million, acknowledging that this is one-thousandth the death rate caused by naturally-occurring radon,” but he also notes that the damaging material has a half-life of 80,000 years, which means it can kill for 115,400 years. Therefore, he says, a fully operational nuclear power industry would eventually cause 115,400 times 3.9 deaths—or 450,060. But these would “occur over a time frame more than 20 times longer than that of recorded history.” X rays and gamma rays are electromagnetic and are simply packets of energy. Alpha and beta rays are streams of charged, subatomic particles. When they rip into our bodies, they dislodge particles of atoms in our cells that carom about with enormous energy; these hopped-up particles behave like the proverbial bull in a china shop; they tear around, breaking bonds and chromosomes and disrupting cell reproduction—such damage may well be the initiating event in cancer.
“It took years for doctors to realize that radiation is dangerous, and there are many old horror stories as a result of this lack of understanding. Fifty years ago, when dentists began x-raying teeth, they would often use their hands to hold the film in their patients’ mouths. Many of these dentists contracted skin and bone cancer that began with lesions on their fingers. It is more difficult to collect accurate data on low-dose exposures, of course. Background radiation of all kinds exists nowadays.” One estimate says most Americans are exposed to an average of 0.2 rads a year, or 210 millirads. (Remember this figure is an “average” and is arbitrary.) Of this typical individual exposure, about 28 millirads come from outer space in the form of cosmic rays (that’s at sea level—at higher elevations, where the thinning atmosphere deflects fewer rays, the number rises; estimates range from 2 millirads extra at 1000 feet to 70 extra per year at 9000 feet. Perhaps 50 millirads come from the natural decay of radioactive elements in the Earth. Certain areas have measurably more than others. (Leadville, Colorado, residents, more than 1.5 miles up, absorb 125 millirads of cosmic rays per year.) “Your home could be radioactive, too. Contractors occasionally purchase debris from uranium mines to use as filler in construction materials. Alternatively, the rock from which your house is constructed could have been mined from a quarry with naturally-high radiation. The Department of Energy is beginning a 3-year survey of 8,000 buildings that are believed to deliver excessive radiation. And if you live in an area rich in radioactive elements, your water could be radioactive as well. Such water spraying out of shower heads gives an ambient concentration that can approach occupational limits. Fallout from all the nuclear-weapons testing to date is said to give us each about 4.4 millirads per year (in 1963, when testing was above ground, it was 13 millirads per year). Nuclear power plants give us each about another millirad. Add almost 3 millirads of cosmic radiation for each hour you fly, because the atmosphere is thinner up there. (A flight attendant on the Boston-New York shuttle, for example, gets an extra 250 millirads per year.) Then, if you sleep next to a radioluminescent clock, add another 9 millirads per year. And some dentures are coated with a uranium-and-cirium glaze to make them sparkle. One estimate figures this gives your mouth about 3 rads annually, localized. Color TVs are said to give about 0.48 millirads per year (if you watch 24 hours a day, otherwise proportionately less). The display screens on personal computers are the same kind of so-called ‘safe” cathode-ray tubes. Some occupations increase your risks; you absorb a-lot more radiation if you’re a uranium miner, a radiologist or a worker in a nuclear plant.” (I think we can assume most of our students aren’t.) “But the biggest radioactive boost most of us get comes from diagnostic X rays. A 1970 survey found 65% of the U.S. population had ‘at least one x-ray exam that year.’ Collectively we receive about 240 million x-ray exams annually. Ordinary chest X rays require about 30 millirads, and a single dental X ray needs 300 millirads. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a standard X ray. One radiological physicist says national studies of x-ray trends have shown, factors of variation greater than a hundred: ‘it’s extremely worrying.’ Mammography tests have been found with exposures as ‘low’ as 300 millirads and high as 3,000. A range of dental x-ray machines was found in a Department of Health, Education and Welfare study in 1976 to deliver 100 to 5,000 millirads. The average was one rad, or more than three times the ‘necessary’ exposure. The largest x-ray doses come from fluoroscopies, commonly used to find ulcers, tumors and other abnormalities in the gastrointestinal tract. In a GI series, a patient drinks a solution containing barium (which X rays can’t penetrate) or gets the barium in an enema, and an x-ray machine takes series of photos amounting to as much as 10 minutes of radiation. Compared to chest films, Gofman says, barium meals are a horror show—if the doctor is particularly solicitous, the patient could have his ulcer checked every 6 months—that’s a lot of radiation.
“Few doctors or dentists even know exactly how much radiation their machines deliver. Then, x-ray doses can be increased for other reasons; the overworked technician might juice up the radiation dose to ‘save the time’ required to mix a new batch of developer.”
We must also question schemes to “dump toxic and nuclear wastes at sea,” because leaking barrels have been found (and so on—space here doesn’t permit a detailed account of problems in this area, and most of us are aware of them by now). The radioactivity in the sea, if it works its way into the ecosystem there, will become a part of the chain from lower to higher life forms, as each larger fish (etc.) ingests a more concentrated dose than the one before it. We already have a problem controlling toxic substances on land, and an even bigger problem with ethics on land or sea—when “there’s no one looking” who knows who will dump what where?
Natural hot springs can be another source of radiation. Several hundred of the world’s geothermal springs are radioactive (their waters flow through radioactive rocks), and many of these are popular “health” spas. “Visitors to Luchon, France, drink the water and inhale gas that can be 15,000 times more radioactive than normal air.” In the U.S., radioactive springs include Hot Springs, Arkansas (“low” levels), and Alhambra Hot Springs, Montana, “with high levels that could constitute potential hazards to health,” says the U.S. Geological Survey.
The news of May 19, 1985 carries a story of “a natural environmental hazard of uncertain but grave dimensions discovered beneath the meadows of eastern Pennsylvania: state and federal investigators have found that many houses are contaminated with radon, a radioactive gas that causes lung cancer after prolonged exposure. Levels in some houses were the highest ever recorded in the U.S.—in one eastern county, nearly 40% had unsafe levels of radon. But the risk may be spread far beyond this semirural county. The radon is seeping up through the soil from uranium deposits in the earth below. Officials believe the radioactive contamination varies from place to place, depending on the permeability of the soil and other factors. Parts of New Jersey and New York are also part of the Reading Prong, a geologic formation with uranium in it. Pennsylvania officials are telling residents that the radon does not constitute an immediate health risk, although it may pose serious long-term problems.” More houses still need to be examined; one New Jersey Environmental Protection spokesman described the situation as “an entirely new area of concern that nobody even guessed at six months ago.” A University of Pittsburgh professor of physics says virtually every state has areas of radon contamination that might pose a health threat. “It is really a worldwide problem,” he said.
Sheldon Meyers, director of the office of radiation at the federal Environmental Protection Agency, agreed that “there was no doubt radon caused cancer,” but (as usual) the exact dangers are still “not certain.” One family’s living room had the “highest radiation level found in the U.S. from radon contamination; at that level, the chances of contracting lung cancer over a lifetime of exposure are 100%, experts say. They moved, but a nearby neighbor was told that her house showed 2.12 working levels of radon, and that the level was “equivalent to smoking 22 packs of cigarettes a day! At twenty-two packs, “hazardous to your health” becomes quite an understatement!