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#185 - Radiation -- Part 3: Human Harm From Low-level Exposure, 12-Jun-1990

The federal government is proposing to allow large quantities of "low
level" radioactive wastes to be declared non-radioactive ("below
regulatory concern," or BRC, is their phrase for it; see RHWN #183).
These radioactive wastes would then be handled like ordinary household
trash; they would be transported, landfilled, incinerated, reused (for
example, radioactive tools) or recycled (for example, radioactive
metals) along with everything else we discard each day. Such a change
would expose Americans randomly to more ionizing radiation than they
are exposed to today. Government and industry both argue that this is
acceptable. Industry uses one justification, government uses another.
Many people in the nuclear industry argue that small increases in
ionizing radiation aren't dangerous at all. They argue that there is a
threshold dose of radiation, below which no effects occur, and above
which people may be harmed (see RHWN #184). They say the BRC program
will not expose anyone to a dose of radiation greater than the
threshold dose, and therefore the BRC program will cause no harm.

Government approaches the matter differently. The U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) argues that any amount of radiation causes some
damage to a large population of exposed individuals; they subscribe to
the "linear theory" of radiation damage (see RHWN #184). They have set
limits for radiation exposure based on the moral premise that it is
acceptable to kill one citizen out of every 100,000 citizens by
exposing them to radiation. Since the BRC program will not cause
exposures that would kill more than one in every 100,000 citizens (and
the linear theory tells them that, in reality, the program will kill
many fewer people than one in every 100,000), the government argues
that the BRC program is acceptable because it will save billions of
dollars for the nuclear power industry (which must soon dismantle its
aging nuclear reactors and put them "away" somewhere) and for the
government itself (which must eventually clean up millions of pounds of
radioactive contamination lying around near weapons factories).

Unfortunately, there is now very substantial evidence, from studies of
human beings exposed to radiation, that both industry and the
government have misunderstood (intentionally or not) the dangers of low
levels of ionizing radiation. (By "low levels" we mean within the range
0 to 5 rem [centi-Sievert].)

The most compelling evidence comes from studies of 91,231 people who
survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in
1945. Contrary to popular belief, most of these survivors received only
very low exposures to ionizing radiation. Their health has been
continuously monitored by international scientific organizations, so
they represent the best available information on the effects of low
levels of ionizing radiation on humans. The bomb survivor data now
shows without doubt that there is no safe dose of radiation and,
furthermore, that the lowest doses have caused the greatest cancer
increases per unit of radiation. (In other words, the shape of the
dose-response curve is supra-linear; see RHWN #184.) This means that
both the industry assumption (threshold theory) and the EPA's
assumption (linear theory) seriously underestimate the dangers from
exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation. Furthermore, the Japanese
data reveal another important fact about low-level radiation: young
humans (children and infants) are more sensitive to the effects of low
levels of ionizing radiation than are older humans. We will discuss the
Japanese data in detail at another time.

Here we will discuss more recent human data provided by accidents that
released large amounts of ionizing radiation at Chernobyl (Soviet
Union, 1986), Three-Mile Island (Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 1979), and
Savannah River (Georgia, U.S.A., 1970). These accidents are the subject
of a shocking new book: Jay Gould and Ben Goldman, DEADLY DECEIT, cited
in our last paragraph. Page numbers inside parentheses in our text
refer to this book. Like the Japanese bomb survivor data, these three
accidents indicate that the lowest doses of ionizing radiation cause
the greatest human damage per unit of radiation. This provides
confirmation that the government's estimate of the hazards of low-level
radiation is low; that is to say, today's allowable limits for human
exposure to ionizing radiation will allow more deaths than our
government officially admits. How many more is the question. Bomb
survivor data indicate 30 times more, but even this may be low,
according to Gould and Goldman.

The three accidental releases of large quantities of radiation also
confirm what the bomb survivor data are showing: that infants and
children are the most sensitive to damage from low levels of ionizing
radiation. Consider these facts:

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew up on April 26, 1986; nine days
later, radioactivity monitoring stations in Washington state (9,000
miles from Chernobyl) detected radioactivity in rainfall. By May 16th,
50 EPA monitoring stations detected radioactive iodine-131 in cow's
milk all across the U.S. Our government said "no problem." Now
government data, analyzed by Gould and Goldman, show that in May, 1986,
there was a 5.3% increase in the U.S. death rate, compared to the
previous year; the chances are less than one in a thousand that this
increase occurred by chance. During June, 1986, the infant mortality
rate in the U.S. was 12.3% higher than it had been in June, 1985, and
in some parts of the country it was much higher; for example, in the
south Atlantic states, the infant mortality rate in June, 1986, was 28%
higher than it had been the previous year. Based on this, and on much
additional evidence that we haven't space to review, Gould and Goldman
suggest that current EPA limits on exposures to low level radiation may
need to be tightened by as much as a factor of 1000 (pg. 21).

In November and again in December, 1970, two nuclear rod meltdowns
occurred at the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant in Georgia. The
plant was operated for the government by DuPont, who never told the
public anything about these accidents until Senator John Glenn grilled
Dupont officials in public hearings in late 1988. To this day, DuPont
claims that no radiation escaped outside the plant, but official
government measurements of radioactivity in rain throughout the
southeastern U.S. reveal highly suspicious increases immediately after
the accidents. In South Carolina in December, 1970, rain carried six
times as much radioactivity as it had carried in December, 1969.
Radioactivity was also measurable in local fish; fish in the Savannah
river contained radiation levels 100,000 times higher than fish sold in
New York City in 1971. A child who ate 1/4 pound of catfish from the
Savannah River in 1971 would have received a radiation dose equivalent
to 20 chest xrays. Infant mortality in South Carolina in January, 1971,
was 24% higher than it had been a year earlier; in contrast, infant
mortality declined that month over the entire U.S. and over the
southeastern states taken as a whole. During the following summer (May
through September) infant mortality in South Carolina was 15% higher
than it had been the previous year. Again, we are omitting a wealth of

March 28, 1979, a meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power
plant spewed more than 10 million Curies of radioactivity into the
environment, most of it into the air. Because the radiation dispersed
quickly, most people received only low levels of exposure. Government
and industry spokespeople have repeatedly assured the public than no
one was harmed. However, the government's own health data tell quite a
different story. Comparing the period three months prior to the
accident against the period four months after the accident,
Pennsylvania's infant mortality rate increased 16% and the state of
Maryland's increased 41%. All together, Gould and Goldman calculate
that perhaps as many as 50,000 deaths occurred during 1980-1982 as a
result of the TMI accident (pg. 63).

This is an important book. Any individual fact in the book may be
disputed, but the cumulative weight of the evidence is persuasive. And
though we generally do not give much credence to conspiracy theories,
if you read this book from cover to cover, you will have difficulty
believing that your government is telling the full truth about the
effects of low-level radiation. We suggest that you act prudently to
protect yourself and your family: do whatever it takes to keep BRC
wastes out of your community.

Get: Jay M. Gould and Benjamin A. Goldman, DEADLY DECEIT; LOW-LEVEL
RADIATION, HIGH-LEVEL COVER-UP (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows
Press [P.O. Box 548, Village Station, New York, NY 10014], 1990).

And: Keep in touch with Nuclear Information Resource Service (NIRS),
1616 P Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; (202) 328-0002, and the
Radioactive Waste Campaign, 625 Broadway, 2nd floor, New York, NY
10012; (212) 473-7390.

--Peter Montague


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meltdown; pa; ma; groundwater;