Better Cruel Truth, Darn It

In my years at Rocky Flats, I occasionally heard rumors that low levels of radiation were good for health – that Rocky Flats workers were healthier than they “should” be, that workers in the plutonium area got very few colds. One friend suggested it was because smoking was banned in so many places, while others said it was just because you had to be healthy to hold down the job. I shrugged it all off.

Now I’ve run into a Skeptiod episode by Brian Dunning entitled “Radiation Hormesis: Is It Good for You?” Dunning was, as you might guess, skeptical, in part because

“Those trumpeting the benefits of radiation hormesis the loudest are often the same ones who deny anthropogenic global warming. This may be the result of people getting their information from political sources rather than from science sources”

and cited other warning signs that the position may not be science

Dunn provides background, explaining the difference between ionizing vs non ionizing radiation and a dose-response curve. He notes that the “linear no threshold” approach used with radiation, which assumes there is no safe level of exposure, has been adopted to be “prudent.” Since we all live bathed in background radiation, “it seems reasonable to infer that very low doses of even ionizing radiation are harmless.” Even the Health Physics Society has stated “no threshold” is an oversimplification.

The hypothetical radiation hormesis says the actual dose-response curve is U-shaped, starting at zero response to zero exposure, but then dipping down below the zero-risk line

“indicating radiation at that dose actually reduces the risk of cancer, less risk than you’d have with no radiation at all — and then, as the dosage increases, the curve comes back into the increased risk zone, and continues curving upward as the dosage increase.”

After a literature review, Dunn says hormesis

“is one claim of a pattern that some say can be found in the data, but that most dismiss because the data is simply far too noisy at that low level to support the drawing of any conclusions at all.”

So there may be a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect – all tiny responses lost in the noise of the data. I’m not surprised – though maybe a little disappointed. With so much hyperbolic criticism of Rocky Flats, it would be ironically delightful if working there improved my health. Too bad the science isn’t there. I do believe, as Edward Abbey said, better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.

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