Magazine article The World and I

Radiation and Life

Magazine article The World and I

Radiation and Life

Article excerpt

Although most are invisible, emanations of particles and waves profoundly influence all living things, including people.

I picked up a Time magazine on the plane back from a long business trip. To my surprise and dismay, the obituary of Richard Marsh was printed in that issue. Professor Marsh had been kind enough to allow me to share his lab while I completed my doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin. He was a great role model for young medical scientists, not only for his technical skills but for his complete honesty and integrity. He withstood years of pressure and derisive critique for his argument that the then-common practice of mixing meat from animal carcasses into cattle feed could lead to degenerative brain disease in people. Only after mad bovine disease decimated the British beef- production industry did the United States mandate what Marsh had advocated--cattle can no longer be fed meat.

Marsh didn't live to see his ideas vindicated. He succumbed to cancer several years before mad bovine disease struck Britain. Early in his professional life, Marsh had faced another cancer, but that one was eradicated by exposing it (and Marsh) to high doses of ionizing radiation in the form of X rays. Ironically, that radiation also induced cellular changes, which years later matured into the wanton cancer that silenced Marsh's great intellect and voice prematurely. Radiation is a two-edged sword that can save life or kill. It did both to my mentor and friend.

Radiation and fear

For most people, the word radiation conjures up the horrors of nuclear war, sickness, and death, and the thought of exposure to radiation produces unwarranted fear. An example is the case of a technician at one national laboratory who was dismissed after he refused to clean a chemical laboratory contaminated with radioactive substances. Believing that exposure to radiation had caused illnesses in himself and his wife, the technician sued his employer to get a job back that did not expose him to anything radioactive.

During the trial, the courtroom emptied without the judge's adjournment when the employer brought in lead containers of the type used to shield and transport radioactive materials. Although the employer had assured all trial participants that the containers were not radioactive, fear swept through and cleared the courtroom. The judge's reflection on the event is telling. He said, "The fear was not really of the lead containers but that we distrust our authorities so much that nobody believed them when they said that the lead containers were safe." This was not an isolated incident.

Recently, plant seeds were taken into space and exposed to the powerful natural radiation found beyond Earth's protecting atmosphere and surrounding magnetic belts. The study's intention was to have schoolchildren grow the plants and determine how many had been killed or mutated. The pooled results were to have provided clear scientific evidence of the protection from natural radiation we have on Earth compared to the harsh environment in space. The program was an elegantly simple approach toward educating children about radiation and the environment, even as it also gave them a direct connection to the space program. Unfortunately, fear of radiation killed the program; the local papers carried stories about the "irradiated seeds" being distributed to schoolchildren, and some parents refused to send their children to school. The project had to be stopped and the seeds removed.

Dose and duration

In considering the possible hazard from exposure to radiation, the radiation type, dose, and frequency of exposure must be considered. For example, while the health hazard of ionizing radiation such as X rays has been documented, close examination of epidemiologic data suggests that low-dose radiation is beneficial. It is thought that low-dose radiation stimulates the molecular-repair mechanisms that defend the genetic material from errors. …

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