W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D.
Egan O'Connor, Executive Director of CNR
- Part 1 -- A True Story: The Expert and the Pea
- Part 2 -- What Is the Theo-Negli-Safe-Benny Assn.?
- Part 3 -- Harmful, by Any Reasonable Standard of Proof
- Part 4 -- An Old-Time Virtue: "Courage of Your Convictions"
- Part 5 -- The Media's Duty
- Part 6 -- Approval for Massive Experimentation on Humans?
- Part 7 -- A Double-Standard Having Consequences
- Part 8 -- "Negligible" Personal Risks vs Large National Rates
- Part 9 -- Can't Key Points Be Settled by Normal Means?
- Part 10 -- Will the Media Decide Humanity's Radiation Future?
- Part 11 -- Some Signs of Corruption in Radiation Health Science
- Part 12 -- What Hope Exists for Truth on Low-Dose Radiation?
- Part 13 -- The Wrong Time to Belittle Radiation's Menace
Part 1 A True Story: The Expert and the Pea
A true story comes more and more frequently to our minds. One of us (JWG) used to testify occasionally in radiation lawsuits as an expert witness. During such a lawsuit, the following occurred:
A defendant's expert was suggesting that radium the size of a pea was nothing to be feared because its alpha emissions could not even get through a piece of paper. The expert did not mention the fact that radium's decay-products emit strong gamma rays, which can irradiate the entire body, of course. But when the expert was asked if he would agree to keep pure radium the size of a pea, wrapped in paper in his own pocket for a while, he acknowledged that he could not possibly do such a thing without killing himself rather quickly with gamma rays.
The principle that people who ridicule the hazard of ionizing radiation, should be asked "to put their bodies where their mouths are," may deserve widespread application in view of the campaign to deny harm from low-dose radiation.
Part 2 What Is the Theo-Negli-Safe-Benny Assn.?
Several notable events have intensified the campaign to deny harm from low-dose radiation: (a) The Chernobyl accident, and the resulting "need" to deny health damage, (b) The estimate that it will cost over $250 billion to clean up nuclear pollution from our weapons facilities, and the resulting desire to spend much less, (c) The difficulty of obtaining public approval for the electric utilities to transfer their radioactive poisons to Yucca Mountain and other rad-waste dumps, and (d) The decisions to persuade women to take yearly mammograms (low-dose xrays).
Today, a growing number of people associated with the nuclear and medical industries assert, falsely, "there is no evidence that exposure to low-dose radiation causes any cancer --- the risk is only theoretical," or the risk is "utterly negligible," or "the accidental exposures were below the safe level," and even "there is reasonably good evidence that exposure to low-dose radiation is beneficial and lowers the cancer rate."
Such statements represent four degrees of denying harm. For brevity here, we are combining the denial groups as the Theo-Negli-Safe-Benny Association, or the Theo-NSBA.
No one at all denies that high doses of ionizing radiation are carcinogenic and mutagenic. Such doses are not at issue. It is public resistance to low doses which seriously threatens the future of powerful radiation interests.
Part 3 Harmful, by Any Reasonable Standard of Proof
We and others have refuted the Theo-NSBA's false claims in detail, elsewhere (for example, Gofman 1990, Baverstock 1991, Ward 1991, UNSCEAR 1993, NRPB 1995, Gofman 1996, Pierce 1996 --- see Reference List). And the work which refutes the claims of the radiation enthusiasts, has not been refuted by them. They just don't mention it.
By any reasonable standard of scientific proof, the weight of the human evidence shows decisively that cancer is inducible by ionizing radiation even at the lowest possible dose and dose-rate --- which means that the risk is not "theoretical." Therefore, we know that harm to human health will be immense, if the false claims about safety or benefit prevail and exposures rise. (See also Part 8, about inherited afflictions from exposure to low-dose radiation.)
Part 4 An Old-Time Virtue: "Courage of Your Convictions"
If someone is advertising that extra exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation is "just a theoretical hazard" or "a negligible hazard," or "safe," or "probably beneficial," why on earth would he/she hesitate to take such extra doses voluntarily and regularly, as Test #1 of sincerity? (Test #2 is in Part 13.) Demonstrating "the courage of your convictions" used to be admired as a virtue. For such individuals, we can imagine an Internet site on the WorldWideWeb which presents a register in four columns:
Column 1: Name and occupation of the individual.
Column 2: Dose-level and dose-rate advertised by the individual as "just a theoretical hazard," or "a negligible hazard," or "beneficial," with sources and dates.
Column 3: Dates and places where the individual voluntarily received such extra doses.
Column 4: Details of verification by an independent agent and by a dosimeter, always in the custody of the independent agent.
Part 5 The Media's Duty
All types of communications media have a duty, in our opinion, to test the sincerity of their sources, before they print or broadcast any claim about radiation risk at low doses being "theoretical," "negligible," "safe," or "beneficial." After all, such claims are not innocuous. They easily lead to relaxed attitudes and increasing exposures to radiation. Indeed, if one considers the affiliations and funding of most people making such claims, it is reasonable to surmise that a relaxed attitude about low doses is their goal. Some of them say so, rather directly, in our opinion (HPS 1996).
Part 6 Approval for Massive Experimentation on Humans?
An example of the relaxed attitude, in our opinion, is voiced by Mario E. Schillaci, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the Los Alamos Laboratory's treatise on ethical and other lessons from earlier radiation experiments on humans, he writes a long chapter, "Radiation and Risk" (Schillaci 1995). In it, he claims that harm from low-dose radiation is just "hypothetical" (which means unproven but maybe real --- the same as "theoretical") and that "the jury is still out" on whether such doses are beneficial (p.92). He concludes his chapter (p.115) by bringing up nuclear power:
"It seems sensible to this author to cut off concern with the risks accompanying exposure to manmade radiation at some sensible fraction of the dose due to natural background radiation . . . We must choose, as a society, to begin to treat the risks associated with manmade radiation rationally, or to continue to deal with these risks emotionally . . . Nowhere is this choice framed more sharply than in the issue of nuclear-power generation."
Then Schillaci claims, erroneously, that the only realistic alternative to nuclear power is fossil-fuel, and he asserts that nuclear power is preferable --- even though he seems to expect (correctly) that widespread use of nuclear power would increase mankind's exposure to ionizing radiation.
Schillaci appears to be a person who believes that neither biological harm nor biological benefit from low-dose radiation is proven. Yet he, and many like him, advocate policies which would increase exposure --- which seems to us like approval for massive experimentation on humans.
By contrast, it is emphatically our own view that "hypothetical" harm to humanity's genes should be treated in law just like proven harm --- since "hypothetical" harm may be real. And we think some overt emotion is appropriate for ethical issues of such consequence.
Part 7 A Double-Standard Having Consequences
Various media generally refer to "Gofman, long-time opponent of nuclear power," but they almost never label people who deny harm from low-dose radiation as "long-time advocates of nuclear-power" (or mammography, etc.) or as people who have a personal conflict of interest because their grants or livelihoods come from interests who irradiate people.
This is a double-standard whose consequence is to cast doubt on my views relative to the "objective" views of radiation enthusiasts funded by the government, and by the nuclear and medical industries. For example, the National Council on Radiation Protection is treated by the media like a neutral scientific body, but its activities depend on the "generous support" of about 60 organizations, a list overwhelmingly dominated by interests who irradiate people. It is to NCRP's credit that the list is very public, and appears at the end of every NCRP report. Partial list, 1991:
- American College of Nuclear Physicians
- American College of Radiology
- American Dental Association
- American Hospital Radiology Administrators
- American Medical Association
- American Nuclear Society
- American Radium Society
- American Society of Radiologic Technologists
- Association of University Radiologists
- Defense Nuclear Agency
- Edison Electric Institute
- Electric Power Research Institute
- Health Physics Society
- Institute of Nuclear Power Operations
- National Cancer Institute
- Radiological Society of North America
- Society of Nuclear Medicine
- US Dept. of Energy. Indeed, NCRP's chair, Dr. Charles B. Meinhold, is from DOE's Brookhaven National Lab.
- US Dept. of Labor
- US EPA
- US Navy
- US Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Our own opposition, to preventable amounts of low-dose radiation exposure, results from the evidence. We would much prefer that the evidence exonerated low-dose radiation as a health menace. Of course, members of the Theo-NSBA also claim that their positions on nuclear pollution, mammography, etc. are determined by evidence rather than by personal interests. And it is possible that scientists for the tobacco industry really believe that smoking is safe and good for people.
While the media generally identify conflicts of interest in the tobacco "wars," the media rarely do so when they quote someone who denies harm from low-dose radiation.
Part 8 "Negligible" Personal Risks vs Large National Rates
The fact, so seldom explained by radiation enthusiasts and so often stressed in our publications, is that extra exposure of a population to low-dose radiation creates only a small risk per individual, but it creates a real rate (not a "maybe") of fatal radiation-induced cancer for the population.
For example: In 1990, the government-sponsored BEIR Report (p.172) estimated that if the population received an extra 100 milli-rems of dose every year (approximately equivalent to doubling the natural "background" rate), the dose-increment would induce extra cancer fatality in one out of every 400 people per lifetime (details available in Gofman 1995, Pt.3). Per newborn individual, the extra lifetime risk would be 1 chance in 400 --- perhaps a "negligible" personal risk in some people's opinion. The same estimate translates into a lifetime rate of 650,000 extra fatal radiation-induced cancers for a population of 260 million persons (USA). Our own 1990 estimate (Gofman 1990, Table 16-C) is about 7.6 times higher: 4,940,000 extra fatal cancers --- 1 person in every 53.
Nonetheless, many radiation enthusiasts are arguing that the consequences of doubling the "background" dose would be "negligible" or "non-existent" or maybe "beneficial." (For instance, see Billen 1990, or Graham 1996, or Pomeroy 1996, in the Reference List.)
By contrast, we and others find decisive evidence that there is no threshold dose for radiation-induced cancer. And this finding very strongly supports the presumption that inherited afflictions are also inducible by ionizing radiation, even at the lowest possible dose and dose-rate.
In our own view, it is quite possible that a permanent doubling of the "background" dose of ionizing radiation, worldwide, would very gradually double mankind's burden of inherited afflictions --- from mental handicaps to predispositions to emotional disorders, cardio-vascular diseases, cancers, immune-system disorders, and so forth. Such a doubling would be the greatest imaginable crime against humanity.
Part 9 Can't Key Points Be Settled by Normal Means?
In real science, undistorted by corporate and political pressures, most controversies do get resolved, because all the participants are competing to find the truth. For instance, there are no big interests at stake in astrophysics (yet). So, as evidence and logic develop on an issue, the participants can reach a genuine consensus. The losers in the competition behave like good sports, and are content to have a convincing solution to a problem which had been blocking further progress in their field of interest.
An example of genuine consensus and good sportsmanship involved the intense competition between Linus Pauling and the Watson-Crick-Franklin team, to discover the structure of our genetic molecules in the early 1950s. Linus Pauling, who proposed a three-stranded DNA helix, lost the competition. When he learned about the correct and elegant double-strand helix, "Pauling's reaction was one of genuine thrill . . . The overwhelming biological merits of a self-complementary DNA molecule made him effectively concede the race" (Watson 1968, p.138).
But not all participants in low-dose radiation health science are necessarily in a disinterested search for the truth. Recently, a young radiation epidemiologist called me (JWG) to relate his experiences. He lamented: "I had no idea when I entered this field that it was so corrupt."
The reason that the low-dose radiation controversy may never be solved by normal scientific procedures is that many participants may not be in a normal or genuine scientific search for the truth. It would be naive to expect evidence and logic to persuade such people. Yet we are often asked, "How many experts in this field have you convinced of your views?"
Part 10 Will the Media Decide Humanity's Radiation Future?
In reality, the radiation "wars" are carried on in the media, with one side able to sponsor as many myth-makers as needed to convince science reporters that harm from low-dose radiation must be unproven and trivial "since most experts say so." Since science reporters know that consensus is meaningful in real science, they are easy prey for manipulation by the Theo-NSBA. Here is a recent example:
On Feb. 24, 1997, the Oakland Tribune did a front-page feature titled "The Real Risk of Radiation." It featured assertions that it may be more important to "eat your broccoli" than to avoid low-dose radiation. On page 7, the Tribune had a 4-inch feature which began by saying, "It is difficult to find scientists who believe unequivocally that low exposures to radiation can cause cancer in adults. But Dr. John Gofman . . . has written a book about his belief that they do." Not about evidence. "Belief." Of course, the reporters had not asked to see the book itself.
Although the media play no role in the outcome of genuine scientific controversies, the media may determine the outcome of the low-dose radiation controversy. Especially is this so, because most of the government-funded scientists who support views like ours, appear to be so timid about speaking up. Probably they have personal worries about losing their government grants if they become too visible. Except from CNR's publications in print and on the Internet, you would hardly learn about such major reports as the 1993 UNSCEAR Report and the 1995 NRPB Report, both of which confirm our no-safe-dose analysis of 1990. Their authors just don't go to the media, the way members of the Theo-NSBA do.
Part 11 Some Signs of Corruption in Radiation Health Science
A key indication that the so-called radiation controversy is not a genuine race for the truth, is the fact that members of the Theo-NSBA ignore the evidence which destroys their claims, instead of trying to refute it. For instance, they have not refuted CNR's 1990 proof that there is no threshold dose for radiation carcinogenesis; they just don't mention it. And a study which they often ignore is the classic Nova Scotia study of breast cancer which is so incompatible with their claims. And from the A-Bomb Survivor Study, they select little bits which they like, and ignore the bulk of the findings which destroy their claims (Muckerheide 1995).
Even worse, they now engage in retroactive alteration of inputs to various studies (see Gofman 1990). It is an important question how many (if any) radiation databases can be trusted, now that a fundamental barrier against bias has been cast to oblivion in radiation health science. Whoever controls the radiation databases, controls the "findings."
Readers can document many specific examples of "Scientifically questionable practices" by consulting the entry by that phrase in the index of Gofman 1990.
How are silence, and a sponsor-friendly "consensus," engineered in radiation health science? In 1990, a radiation epidemiologist "went public" about the pressure he had experienced in the 1980s, before leaving DOE's Los Alamos National Lab. Testifying to a Dept. of Energy Advisory Committee, Dr. Gregg S. Wilkinson said that he was "berated" and pressured by superiors at the Lab and by DOE officials to suppress or alter his findings about some excess cancer in some Rocky Flats nuclear workers. Wilkinson was told by a deputy director of the Lab that "We should be publishing to please the Dept. of Energy" (Wilkinson 1990). To his ever-lasting credit, Wilkinson published his work intact (Wilkinson 1987) and left the Lab.
Between 1970 and today, little if anything has changed. In the early 1970s, when Dr. Art Tamplin and myself (JWG) found that radiation was a more serious cancer hazard than previously acknowledged, we refused to keep our findings from the public. We not only lost all our grants to continue our research at DOE's Livermore National Lab, but the press was told lies such as "You know, Gofman is crazy . . . He was once confined in a mental hospital." (Never happened.) From various members of today's media, we know that a smear-campaign continues to this day.
Part 12 What Hope Exists for Truth on Low-Dose Radiation?
From JWG: Over the past 30 years, I have modified my estimates and ideas about low-dose radiation as new evidence has accrued. I did not say, and do not say now, that I am always right. What I say is that I handle the available evidence honestly, which is demonstrated by presenting my work step-by-step, from raw data to final conclusions, so that anyone can independently check its validity. Whenever new evidence demands it, I modify conclusions which were based on less complete evidence. The current evidence demonstrates decisively that there is no threshold dose for radiation carcinogenesis.
There are very few people in radiation health science who are independent from interests who irradiate people. (And with its steadfast promotion of mammography, the National Cancer Institute remains one of those interests.) So independent analysts are overloaded with work, and extremely short of time. If we tried to rebut most of the misinformation repeatedly placed into the media (and into the courts and legislatures) by members of the Theo-NSBA, we could not possibly succeed, because we are immensely outnumbered. We must constantly choose between doing useful new research for the public, or shooting at myths. The folly of myth-shooting was well expressed by F.A. Harper in 1957:
"As to the number of forms myths can take, consider the possible answers to 2 plus 2. The only non-mythical answer is 4. But there are infinite mythical answers . . . So if [a person's] aim were perfect and he could shoot a myth with every shot, he could spend his entire lifetime shooting at myths released by only one myth factory, without ever demolishing all this factory could produce."
Then where is the hope that truth will prevail on low-dose radiation?
We are not sure. The current situation is clearly another opportunity for triumph of the Law of Concentrated Benefit over Diffuse Injury (humanity's most harmful law):
"A small, determined group, working energetically for its own narrow interests, can almost always impose an injustice upon a vastly larger group, provided that the larger group believes that the injury is `hypothetical,' or distant-in-the-future, or real-but-small relative to the real-and-large cost of preventing it."
Part 13 The Wrong Time to Belittle Radiation's Menace
At the outset, we proposed a test of sincerity for those who deny the harm from low-dose radiation. A separate test does not require their cooperation:
Today's radiation enthusiasts do admit they lack definitive evidence that low-dose radiation is harmless or directly beneficial. They admit it's a "maybe." If today's radiation enthusiasts sincerely care only about the good of humanity, then why are they not the ones actively urging reduction of radiation exposure until they can provide definitive evidence? Under circumstances of uncertainty, isn't dose-reduction what people of goodwill would want for their fellow humans? Is something other than goodwill urgently stoking the fires of the Theo-Negli-Safe-Benny Associates? Maybe actions speak for themselves.
Ionizing radiation is a proven and ubiquitious mutagen to which humans everywhere are actually exposed (medically, environmentally, occupationally). Moreover, unlike some chemical mutagens, ionizing radiation is capable of inflicting every possible kind of mutation, from a single "base-change" to deletion of entire genes. It is especially potent at inducing the kind of complex genetic injuries which cannot be repaired. None of those three statements is in dispute.
At the very time when more and more dreadful afflictions (not only cancer) are discovered to be gene-based, one might expect a very loud consensus in favor of immediate reduction of exposure to ionizing radiation. Instead, we see the opposite: A growing effort to belittle the menace of this particular mutagen. It takes our breath away.
# # # # #
- Baverstock 1991 (Keith F.): "Comments on Commentary by D. Billen," Radiation Research 126: 383-384.
- BEIR 1990: Com'tee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, Health Effects of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation. National Academy Press, $35. ISBN 0-309-03995-9.
- Billen 1990 (Daniel): "Spontaneous DNA Damage and Its Significance for the `Negligible Dose' Controversy in Radiation Protection," Radiation Research 124: 242-245.
- Gofman 1990 (John W.): Radiation-Induced Cancer. CNR Books, $29.95. ISBN 0-932682-89-8. Also on Internet.
- Gofman 1995 (John W.): "Seven Comments on Proposed Radiation `Standards' for the Yucca Mountain Rad-Waste Repository," submission to the U.S. Envir. Protection Agency, Oct. 26, 1995. Also on Internet.
- Gofman 1996 (John W.): Preventing Breast Cancer. CNR Books, $17. ISBN 0-932682-96-0. Also on Internet.
- Graham 1996 (John): "The Benefits of Low Level Radiation," presented at the Uranium Institute's 21st Annual Symposium 1996.
- Harper 1957 (F.A.): "To Shoot a Myth," essay in The Writings of F.A. Harper, p.537, Vol.2, 1979. ISBN 0-89617-000-4. Inst. for Humane Studies, Geo. Mason Univ., Fairfax, VA.
- HPS 1996: Health Physics Society Position Statement, Radiation Risk in Perspective by K.L. Mossman, Marvin Goldman, Frank Masse, W.A. Mills, K.J. Schiager, R.J. Vetter, in HPS Newsletter, March 1996.
- Muckerheide 1995 (Jim): "The Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation," pp.26-34 in Nuclear News (American Nuclear Society), Sept. 1995.
- NRPB 1995: Nat'l Radiological Protection Board (Britain), Risk of Radiation-Induced Cancer at Low Doses. Ten British pounds. ISBN 0-85951-386-6.
- Pierce 1996 (Donald Pierce + Dale Preston): "Risks from Low Doses of Radiation," Science 272: 632-633. Also: p.9 in Pierce et al, "Studies of Mortality of A-Bomb Survivors . . . 1950-1990," Radiation Research 146: 1-27. July 1996.
- Pomeroy 1996 (Paul W.): "Health Effects of Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation," report from the Advisory Com'tee on Nuclear Waste (Pomeroy, Chair) to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, July 10, 1996; distributed on July 11 as a press release by the NRC.
- Schillaci 1995 (Mario E.): "Radiation and Risk: A Hard Look at the Data," chapter in Radiation Protection and the Human Radiation Experiments (284 pages), Vol. 23 of Los Alamos Science.
- UNSCEAR 1993: United Nations Sci. Com'tee on Effects of Atomic Radiation, 1993 Report to the General Assembly, with Scientific Annexes. $90. ISBN 92-1-142200-0.
- Ward 1991 (John F.): "Response to Commentary by D. Billen," Radiation Research 126: 385-387.
- Watson 1968 (James Donald): The Double Helix. $0.95. Signet paperback 451-Q3770-095.
- Wilkinson 1987 (Gregg S.) et al: "Mortality among Plutonium and Other Radiation Workers at a Plutonium Weapons Facility," Amer. Journal of Epidemiology 125: 231-250.
- Wilkinson 1990 (Gregg S.): Quoted in the State (newspaper), Columbia SC, Feb. 23, 1990, p.1-A, 6-A.
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