Cumulative Low-Level Doses of Radiation Can Cause Big Problems

George Washington's picture

When scientists speak of radiation, they speak not only of single doses but also of cumulative doses.

See for example, this research from the University of Iowa showing that “cumulative radon exposure is a significant risk factor for lung cancer in women".

And see these studies on the health effects cumulative doses of radioactive cesium. (As I noted on March 29th, the radioactive cesium fallout from Japan already rivals Chernobyl. And the amount of radioactive fuel at Fukushima dwarfs Chernobyl).

Admittedly,
the damage from huge single doses may be greater than the same
cumulative dose from many small exposures. But the smaller doses can
still add up.

Many studies have shown that repeated exposures
to low levels of ionizing radiation from CT scans and x-rays can cause
cancer. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

Remember,
the radiation from CT scans and x-rays are external emitters - the
radiation emanates from outside the body. In contract, internal emitters
keep emitting their radiation inside the body. Therefore, the cumulative effect of multiple small doses of radiation from internal emitters could be even more dramatic, depending on the half life, metabolic pathways and other properties of the particular radioactive particle.

As the European Committee on Radiation Risk notes:

Cumulative
impacts of chronic irradiation in low doses are ... important for the
comprehension, assessment and prognosis of the late effects of
irradiation on human beings ...

And see this.

A military briefing written by the U.S. Army for commanders in Iraq states:

Hazards from low level radiation are long-term, not acute effects... Every exposure increases risk of cancer.

(Military
briefings for commanders often contain less propaganda than literature
aimed at civilians, as the commanders have to know the basic facts to
be able to assess risk to their soldiers.)

The briefing states that doses are cumulative, citing the following military studies and reports:

  • ACE
    Directive 80-63, ACE Policy for Defensive Measures against Low Level
    Radiological Hazards during Military Operations, 2 AUG 96
  • AR 11-9, The Army Radiation Program, 28 MAY 99
  • FM 4-02.283, Treatment of Nuclear and Radiological Casualties, 20 DEC 01
  • JP 3-11, Joint Doctrine for Operations in NBC Environments, 11 JUL 00
  • NATO STANAG 2473, Command Guidance on Low Level Radiation Exposure in Military Operations, 3 MAY 00
  • USACHPPM TG 244, The NBC Battle Book, AUG 02

Why
was the military advising commanders on radiation in Iraq? Presumably
because the American military used depleted uranium in Iraq (see this, this, this, this, this and this).

One of the Giant's of Radiation Exposure Science Warned of Cumulative Low-Dose Exposures

American reporter Dahr Jamail reports today for Al Jazeera:

“The
U.S. Department of Energy has testified that there is no level of
radiation that is so low that it is without health risks,” Jacqueline
Cabasso, the Executive Director of the Western States Legal Foundation,
told Al Jazeera.

Her foundation monitors and analyzes U.S.
nuclear weapons programs and policies and related high technology
energy, with a focus on the national nuclear weapons laboratories.

Cabasso
explained that natural background radiation exists, “But more than
2,000 nuclear tests have enhanced this background radiation level, so we
are already living in an artificially radiated environment due to all
the nuclear tests.”

“Karl Morgan, who worked on the Manhattan
project, later came out against the nuclear industry when he understood
the danger of low levels of ionizing radiation-and he said there is no
safe dose of radiation exposure,” Cabasso continued, “That means all
this talk about what a worker or the public can withstand on a yearly
basis is bogus. There is no safe level of radiation exposure. These
so-called safe levels are coming from within the nuclear establishment.”

Karl
Morgan was an American physicist who was a founder of the field of
radiation health physics. After a long career in the Manhattan Project
and at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he became a critic of nuclear
power and weapons. Morgan, who died in 1999, began to offer court
testimony for people who said they had been harmed by the nuclear power
industry.

“Nobody is talking about the fact that there is no
safe dose of radiation,” Cabasso added, “One of the reasons Morgan said
this is because doses are cumulative in the body.”

Indeed, Karl Morgan believed
that the officially-defined "permissible levels" of radiation - which
he helped to create on behalf of the government - are much higher than they should be.

As the Guardian wrote in Morgan's obituary in 1999:

Karl
Morgan ... was a pioneer of health physics - the science of the effect
of exposure to radiation on health. He was a member of the research
group which laid the foundations for the Manhattan project and produced
the first atomic bomb. However, after 30 years in the inner cabinet of
the nuclear establishment, Morgan changed sides and testified in key
radiation cases on behalf of those who claimed they had been harmed by
nuclear weapons and the nuclear power industry.

 

The first signs
of his change of view came in 1968, when he became an influential
campaigner in obtaining a US law that required the medical profession
to control excessive doses of radiation during X-rays.

 

After retirement in 1972 he became more active in drawing attention to the limitations of radiation protection measures.

 

***

 

He began his career as a
physics professor but in 1943 was recruited to become a senior
scientist in health physics to the top secret, atomic bomb project
codenamed Manhattan Engineer District.

The following year,
Morgan went to the newly-formed Oak Ridge national laboratory in
Tennessee, where he became director of health physics from 1944 until
his retirement. When told he would be in the health physics group, he
was shocked and said it was a terrible mistake because he had never
heard of health physics. The leaders of the research project said they
had been in the same position. But they realised that since their
attempts to build the first atomic pile, now known as a reactor, would
create a source of intense radiation, they needed to understand how to
protect people.

 

***

 

He wrote in his autobiography, The
Angry Genie: One Man's Walk Through The Nuclear Age, that he did not
believe they had ever determined that it was safe. "We determined what
we considered was acceptable."

The Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients wrote in 2002:

One
of the original five ‘health physicists' to set radiation safety
standards was Karl Z. Morgan. Dr. Morgan served on the International
Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), which set up most
radiation standards. He also directed the Health Physics Division at Oak
Ridge from 1944 until his retirement in 1972. In recent years, Dr.
Morgan has publicly criticized the ICRP for failing to protect human
health. In a 1994 article for the American Journal of Industrial
Medicine, Dr. Morgan wrote: "The period of atmospheric testing of
nuclear weapons by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the
USSR is a sad page in the history of civilized man. Without question,
it was the cause of hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths. Yet there
was complete silence on the part of the ICRP. During these years
(1960-1965), most members of the ICRP either worked directly with the
nuclear weapons industry or indirectly received most of their funding
for their research from this industry.”

The ICRP's alliance with
the nuclear industry includes ties to the International Congress of
Radiology. In his 1999 autobiography, The Angry Genie: One Man's Walk
Through the Nuclear Age (ISBN 0-8061-3122-5), Dr. Morgan related his
concern about the ICRP's refusal to address the danger of excessive
X-ray exposure during diagnostic procedures and dentistry. Until the
passage of the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968, some
X-ray equipment used in the 1950s and 1960s delivered 2 to 3 rem per
X-ray. X-ray doses as low as 1.6 rem increase a woman's chance of
developing cancer, according to a 1974 study by Baruch Modan [Lancet
(Feb. 23,1974), pp 277-279]. The Act did not address the cumulative effect of multiple, routine, and often unnecessary X-rays.

We would be wise to heed Karl Morgan's insights.