The Guardian – scientifically challenged
Simon Jenkins’ opinionated and unscientific rant on Friday 8th January 2010  is not worth wasting time on. However, The Guardian’s staff, reporting over that weekend (7th to 11th January 2010), have fallen victim to a long-running propaganda campaign.
Their reportage suffers from the same problem as Nuclear Nightmares, Horizon’s documentary of July 2006, which was so biased the BBC Trust had to rule against it. Nuclear Nightmares and The Guardian presented the issue as a straight fight between the seriously flawed establishment model known as “Linear No Threshold” (LNT) and a sub-linear one which postulates that low levels of radiation are proportionately less harmful than LNT.
The BBC ruled against “Nuclear Nightmares” for ignoring the third hypothesis – a supra-linear one – that low levels of radiation are proportionately MORE harmful. There are sound radiobiological mechanisms supporting this idea (some quotes) and a huge amount of evidence that this supra-linear dose:response is real. Much of the evidence is post-Chernobyl, which ICRP entirely ignores in formulating its advice. A substantial book full of evidence suggesting that this oversight might be foolish is free to download at this link . (See also summaries of similar evidence and this new book published in December 2009 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences ). This latest one includes a review of studies of the deaths attributed to Chernobyl fallout in Europe; they total nearly 1 million up to 2005.
The ICRP approach and the hormesis approach typified by Professor Wade Allison’s book (the basis of the Guardian reports) treat radiation as if it were homogeneous. That’s like regarding all poisons as if they were of equal toxicity, weight for weight. “How much poison do you think would kill you?” asks the idiot. “Well it depends what poison you’re talking about”, says any half-way intelligent person. In terms of radiation exposure, the idiot question is “What dose is safe?”, and the intelligent answer is ” that depends; where is the radiation coming from? .. is it a source stuck on my DNA? … is it stuck in my lymph nodes? is it delivering all its energy into a tiny bit of me and leaving all the rest unirradiated?” The nub of the issue is that there are some kinds of radiation exposure which it is valid to regard as uniform, homogeneous, well- averaged, evenly distributed in the body (however many synonyms one needs). Examples are x-rays and cosmic rays. But there are other kinds of exposure which are never evenly distributed, so that all their damage is concentrated into microscopic volumes of tissue. Hot particles are one example and there are many others. In these circumstances, the CERRIE committee advised in 2004, the very concept of dose may be meaningless at the cellular and molecular level. So there is a massive caveat that should be posted on any expression involving the word “dose”. One of the main reasons the nuclear establishment sticks to using dose is for the administrative convenience of lumping all kinds of exposure together. Well that’s just not scientifically valid. Here is an example of the kind of nonsense scientifically illiterate journalists spout because they don’t understand these caveats.
If you want to see the history of how the radiation protection community got stuck in the “average dose” model, look at this .
ICRP has recently admitted (here) that their risk model cannot be used for post-accident exposures. By inescapable extension neither can it be used for routine releases of the same radio-isotopes, and operators can’t use it to demonstrate compliance with regulations expressed in terms of numbers of cancers per year, which is what they actually have to do. The big questions are Where will they get their advice in future? Will it stand up under scientific examination? The nuclear lobby may be able to dupe the occasional journalist and some of the public but the investors and the courts are another matter. If operators go ahead in despite of the evidence there will be huge bankruptcies on the asbestos model (only far larger).
Final point; John Vidal recycles (here) the idea that people are dying of fear, not of radiation-induced diseases. In a short article he said it twice, citing Mike Repacholi’s claim about radiophobia in “Nuclear Nightmares” (the 2006 documentary which the BBC Trust ruled was biased — did Vidal’s research involve a second viewing, I wonder).
By the time Repacholi contributed to the Nuclear Nightmares travesty he was no longer at WHO and I’m not aware that either WHO or IAEA has made an official statement blaming disease on radiophobia (put us right if you can, please – email address at foot of page). What WHO and IAEA have in fact said about the fear factor is in the Chernobyl Forum Report (they were the lead agencies on the Forum). The report cites (ref. 1) a small number of studies (from memory, three or four) where “Chernobyl exposed” populations had higher rates of
“mental health symptoms, medically unexplained physical symptoms and subjective ill-health”.
The mental health symptoms were
“mostly subclinical and did not reach the level of criteria for a psychiatric disorder but they had important consequences for health behaviour, specifically medical care utilisation and adherence to safety advisories.”
In other words, these people took up a lot of time at the advisory centres set up to help them. Big surprise then. Doctors call them “the worried well”. Their subjective and subclinical presentations are no basis for dismissing the increases in clinical diagnoses of conditions such as cancers, congenital malformation, stillbirth, cataracts, and so on and on reported by many workers in the affected territories. One of these scientists observes
We have seen, since the accident, clear and diverse effects of irradiation in plants over time … we bear in mind that these late effects in plants could not be related to ‘radio-phobia’ (ref.2) .
” The radiophobia thing is just absurd, unscientific spin.
Low Level Radiation Campaign http://www.llrc.org/
1Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes: Report of the UN Special Expert Group “Health”; pp 93-4
2 D.M.Grodzinsky, General Secretary, Division of Biology, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, “Reflections of the Chernobyl Catastrophe on the Plant World: Special and General Biological Aspects” – Chapter 7 in the ECRR book Chernobyl 20 Years On (a free download.)