Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Radiation: Fear Versus Reality

Some observers believe there will be a million people with direct and backup assignments to guard the nuclear industry by the year 2000. - Ralph Nader, 1975

Most people believe that radiation - the kind that comes from nuclear power plants - is not only dangerous, but cumulatively so. A little now, a bit more later - it all adds up with life-threatening consequences. We have been convinced over many years that all radiation has the ability to cause cancer, and the more we get of it, the more likely we are to develop the disease. There is also a prevalent idea that radiation causes mutations in humans because of its damage to our DNA. (This will also be shown to be false, even when the radiation levels are very high, as in the Japanese cities bombed at the end of World War II.)

So how did we come to "know" these things? Where did we get our fear of radiation? That's an interesting question.

It's not one of those innate fears like the fear of heights or growling animals. How could we be born with a fear of something we can't feel, smell, see or otherwise sense?

It's not something your parents taught you. Did your mother ever say, "Darling, be sure to look both ways when you cross the street, and watch out for gamma rays"?

I suggest that our fear of radiation comes from two sources. First is its invisibility and lack of any kind of "early warning" altering us to a dangerous presence. If gamma radiation were seen as purple flashing lights, we could see its presence and avoid it, much as many of us must do to prevent being sunburned. In this way radiation is similar to the plague and other scary germ-borne diseases: We tend to fear any kind of invisible killer - as well we should. Being rational beings, however, we don't stay inside under oxygen tents because the Ebola virus is active in Africa or because a Nile virus-bearing mosquito might be in the neighborhood. We make a "risk versus benefit" analysis in order to live a normal life, and we save our irrationality for radiation.

The second reason is an almost total lack of knowledge of radiation, how it is measured, and its effects at various levels. The common knowledge is that all radiation is dangerous, period. Most science textbooks don't add much, if anything, to this dearth of knowledge. Typically there will be a picture of a nuclear plant with a caption reading: "Concrete and steel walls four to five feet thick protect workers from deadly radiation." If we were to see a newspaper article stating that "Mrs. Jones is wearing a special protective suit to ward off the poison darts," we would rush to the next paragraph to find out what kind of darts? How many? How poisonous? Where are they coming from? But as regards nuclear "darts," we just nod our heads and think, "Well, all radiation is dangerous."