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Radiation exposure - prevention is the cure

Guest columnist: Radiation exposure - prevention is the cure
Asheville 10:50 a.m. EST December 18, 2015

Women, children should be particularly diligent

Mary Olson


From the atomic ashes of 1945 comes news: male and female bodies respond differently to ionizing radiation exposure; females suffer more cancer from radiation compared to males. Atomic blasts vaporized the city-centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but some people sheltered in earthen bunkers, survived. Exposed to a large pulse of ionizing radiation, shelters reduced the levels so doses were comparable to medical and occupational exposures today.

Survivors were people of all ages and both genders. Suffering unspeakable destruction and loss, I feel shame that our government studied them; nonetheless, this group of nearly 100,000 people is the data-set that underlies regulation of ionizing radiation today.

Ten years ago the National Academy of Science (NAS) published 60 years of survivor data: grouped by age of exposure and radiation dose, cancers and cancer deaths were counted. Not all radiation exposures result in cancer, likewise cancer has other causes, so the large group enabled tracking of cancer in “excess” of normal rates. Five years ago I did an additional analysis of the data: comparing cancer rates in males and females at different ages.

I turned up simple ratios: Girls who were five years and under in 1945 suffered (across their lifetimes) twice as much cancer as boys the same age and dose-level. Of those who were adults in 1945, the women suffered 50 percent more fatal cancer than did men: for every two men who died from cancer, three women died. I published a paper, “Atomic Radiation is More Harmful to Women” in 2011.

We don’t yet understand why girls (and women) are more harmed by radiation than boys (and men) who are also harmed. As a woman, this 50—100 percent greater rate of cancer gets my attention. Decision-makers are not widely aware of this gender factor and no significant research is asking “why” gender matters.

A controversial question, ‘‘Is harm from a single flash of radiation (an A-Bomb) comparable to many small exposures over time that add up to same dose?’’ was settled this year. A team lead by Dr. David Richardson of UNC Chapel Hill published findings from studying a very large group of nuclear workers who got many small radiation exposures over their careers. Richardson, et al found the same overall dose-harm pattern seen in the A-Bomb survivors and conclude the picture gleaned from the horrors of 1945 does apply to the small, cumulative radiation exposures we all get.

While sobering, this is also good news: we can act to prevent some cancer. Radiation is common today; informed decisions could minimize this invisible hazard, especially for children. Here are some tips:

Radon—energy efficient homes can trap radioactive gas (radon). Radon is naturally released from rocks and dangerous when inhaled. An annual radon test (available at hardware stores) will show any problem. Radon build-up can be remediated with ventilation of your basement/crawl space.

Medical and Dental X-rays—digital equipment greatly reduces diagnostic exposures, nonetheless, your doctor and dentist may not know gender is a risk factor. Perhaps you can work together reduce exposures, and still benefit from diagnostic images. A reduction in frequency of routine exams might work.

CT Scans—these deliver 100 times (or more) radiation than a typical X-ray. Some view this level of radiation exposure to children inappropriate unless the child’s survival is threatened.

Air Travel—at 30,000 feet thin air provides less shielding from radiation from space. I’ve measured radiation levels 30--50 times higher than on the ground. Travel is great but frequent long flights should be evaluated as a long-term risk factor for young children, especially girls.

Industrial Nuclear Sites--routinely but intermittently vent radioactivity to air, release to rivers, lakes and oceans and dump solid waste in unlined trenches. An accident is not needed to expose the public, and it isn’t possible to determine what dose any one of us gets since it may come randomly as radioactive rain from a site many miles away. Regulations currently average exposure risk across all ages and both genders. The only real cure is to work for non-nuclear energy and defense policies.

Taking small steps to minimize radiation exposure, especially early in life could be the greatest gift you give to the girls (and women) in your life. Health is precious; cancer prevention is priceless.

Mary Olson is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility of Western North Carolina and the Southeast Director of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an educational organization where she has served as Staff Biologist since 1991. Olson shared her findings at the global conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna, and at the United Nations review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, both in 2014. She will tour Japan sharing these findings in honor of the fifth year since the Fukushima disaster in March of 2016. Photo from Nuclear Information and Resource Service, data published in NAS, BEIR VII, 2006.

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PREVENTING WHAT WE CANNOT CURE: Physicians for Social Responsibility is the medical and public health voice working to prevent the use or spread of nuclear weapons and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and the toxic degradation of the environment.