Is the Edifice of Radiation Protection Built on a Lie?

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S& T

Published: January 26, 2012 01:39 IST | Updated: January 26, 2012 01:39 IST

Is the edifice of radiation protection built on a lie?

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The Hindu THE WAY FORWARD: The public need to be educated regarding the importance of acceptable levels of risk. Photo: K.R. Deepak

The Linear No Threshold concept assumes that the risk from radiation exposure varies linearly with total dose with no threshold

Recently, Edward Calabrese, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Amherst found out that Dr Hermann J. Muller, famous radiation geneticist knowingly lied in his Nobel Prize lecture when he claimed that there was “no escape from the conclusion that there is no threshold.” Calabrese described his discovery in September in Archives of Toxicology and Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis

In 1927, Muller discovered that x-ray irradiation produces mutations in male fruit-fly germ cells. For this, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1946. Many believe that Muller’s assertion became a corner stone of radiation protection. This is the Linear No Threshold (LNT) concept which assumes that the risk from radiation exposure varies linearly with total dose with no threshold and any dose however small has an adverse effect.

Expert bodies accepted this model because of its simplicity in the management of radiation protection programmes.

“However, it has done much damage to speak of ‘no safe level of radiation’ in scaring not only the public, but also those professionally involved in peacetime health physics who have not been involved in high levels and emergency situations,” Allen Brodsky, Adjunct Professor of Radiation Science, Georgetown University responded to an e-mail query.

In response to an e-mail query Calabrese disclosed that a reviewer of his article on the history of dose-response argued that he had not done a good job on the Muller section and key early radiation mutation studies. Calabrese found that a paper from the University of Rochester by Curt Stern and Casper on fruit-fly irradiation and germ cell mutation was published in 1948 but it was actually completed in August of 1946.

“This study was very important because it did not support a linear dose response and because it was the strongest study to date…using the lowest dose rate etc. I knew that Muller gave his Nobel Prize lecture on Dec. 12, 1946. So the question was whether Muller was aware of the new findings before his major speech,” Calabrese replied

By reviewing Stern’s correspondence with Muller, Calabrese established that Muller knew of the findings which contradicted his theory a month prior to the Nobel Lecture.

Calabrese asserts that Muller’s passionate beliefs influenced the way government and society viewed the risks of low doses of radiation. The 1956 recommendations of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) BEAR (Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation) I Committee reflected these views. Regulating ionizing radiation as if there was no safe dose began!

James Schwartz, a biographer of Muller, Kenneth Muller, Hermann Muller’s grandson and Elof Axel Carlson, Muller’s former student do not agree with Calabrese. Some feel that Calabrese, a supporter of radiation hormesis (beneficial effect) has conflict of interest. The balance of evidence shows that the edifice of radiation protection is not built on a lie.

Dr Evan B. Douple, Associate Chief of Research at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, Hiroshima, does not think that the LNT hypothesis would have lost its applicability if Professor Muller would not have made the passionate statement in his speech.

“……. by the time the BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) committees of the National Academy of Sciences began updating the risk estimates, the mutation risk was superseded by the risk of cancer. Having been intimately involved with the BEIR VI and BEIR VII studies, I can assure you that the voluminous data reviewed by the committee members that related to supporting or refuting LNT, was not swayed or overly influenced by the shape of a dose-response curve in the mutation work of Muller,” Douple responded. (Dr Douple was Director, Board on Radiation Effects Research, National Research Council)

He is not even sure that Calabrese’s interpretation and assessment that Muller was deceptive in his presentation is necessarily accurate or fair.

“Although somatic mutations became a dogma for radiation carcinogenesis, the LNT for carcinogenesis was based on (a) analyses of cancer induction in rodent models, (b) biophysical characteristics of energy deposition, ionizations, and DNA damage in cells, and (c) the early epidemiological studies of cancer in the Japan A-bomb survivors,” he clarified in an e-mail.

He does not think that the conjecture and personal interpretation of an untestable accusation will have significant impact among the radiation protection community.

Prof Ludwig E. Feinendegen, Heinrich-Heine University, Germany thought that “the new revelations on low-dose effects in the realm of biological responses are making an impact on the radiation protection community — as it appears currently from the defensive manner of their arguments for keeping the LNT model, at least for the time being. Calabrese has done us a great favour by his new paper on Mueller’s mistake.”

That there is no safe level of radiation continues to be a useful assumption in radiation protection. It is yet to be proved as a scientific fact.

Douple believes that the exhaustive efforts of those who claim that demonstrating hormesis (beneficial effect) or the presence of thresholds will revolutionize the radiation protection field are misguided.

“We need to educate the public regarding the importance of ‘acceptable levels of risk’—levels that are believed to include risks, but risks for adverse effects that are so small that one would not be able to observe and measure an excess of the effects with a realistic study. Only then will the fear and paranoia associated with radiation effects gradually become less and less and sources for energy production can be fairly and objectively be evaluated,” Douple proposed as a realistic way forward.

Regulators want dose limits for enforcing radiation protection. What is the threshold dose value they will accept for enforcement? Calabrese and his followers have not yet responded to my query.

The French Academy of Sciences, the only scholarly body which has views closer to those of Calabrese on hormesis conceded that on the basis of present knowledge, it is not possible to define the threshold level (between 5 and 50 mSv) or to provide the evidence for it. The dose limit for workers recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) is 20 mSv per year averaged over five years with no year exceeding 50 mSv. The dose levels to radiation workers achievable are so low that the risk from them is negligible. Negligible risk is no risk at all. That we cannot rule out beneficial effects of radiation is also a comforting thought.

K.S. Parthasarathy

Raja Ramanna Fellow, Department of Atomic Energy (ksparth@yahoo.co.uk)

Keywords: radiation exposure

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About ksparthasarathy

I am a former Secretary of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. I am a former Raja Ramanna Fellow in the Department of Atomic Energy. Free lance journalism is my hobby
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