In Japan, the only nation ever to have been subject to nuclear
attack, radiation victims are outliving others of the same age.
Half a century of monitoring of atom bomb survivors has found -
as expected - that, the people closest to ground zero have died in
high numbers of cancers that began in a white-hot flash of nuclear
radiation. But as one moves farther from the blast site, the death
rate drops until it actually dips below the baseline.
The finding has raised a question: Could ionizing radiation in
small doses actually be good for you? Could it be like so many
other substances - iodine, for example - that are lethal in excess
but essential to good health in trace amounts?
The finding is likely to change the rules of the game in the
long-stan ding debate over low-level radiation. Because it is found
in so many places, including medical trash, nuclear power plants
and in the natural radon gas found in many homes, strict control
standards have been costly.
If the government relaxed radiation exposure standards, by even
a small degree, it could result in enormous savings for utilities,
hospitals and other businesses that use radioactive materials.
Taxpayers could save billions of dollars if cleanup standards were
eased for dozens of lightly contaminated sites.
There's no sign that such a change is imminent. Some long-term
studies continue to suggest risks from even the most minute
quantities of radiation. But others are challenging the
conventional wisdom in ways that are becoming harder to ignore.
Here are a few recent findings:
Tens of thousands of U.S. Navy shipyard workers were exposed to
radiation from nuclear-powered warships in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet, in carefully controlled studies by Johns Hopkins University,
the radiated workers appear to have suffered no ill effects. In
fact, they have fewer cancers than non-exposed workers.
Thousands of soldiers took part in nuclear weapons tests in the
Cold War. But in a pair of recent analyses, researchers found no
sign of unusual illnesses or higher death rates among t"atomic
A University of Pittsburgh researcher tracked cancer rates in
American counties with the highest levels of radon, the radioactive
gas that is found in rocks. His finding: Lung cancers are lower in
the areas where exposure is the highest.
Each case has been met with criticism over possible flaws that
may have skewed the results. One problem is that studies that track
human illness and deaths over time are relatively crude instruments
for measuring health effects.
To help resolve the dispute, a committee of the National
Academy of Sciences gathered in Washington recently to launch a
months-long project to decide whether the latest evidence on
low-level radiation and health should be formally reviewed. …