By Hamish Johnston
Not surprisingly, this set the alarm bells ringing, but I couldn’t resist following it up.
The paper is by Don Luckey who is Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Missouri. Luckey is a proponent of “radiation hormesis” — the idea that small doses of radiation can actually be good for you, even if much larger doses will kill you.
In his paper, Luckey goes so far as to suggest that schools be built “in used nuclear power plants”, and children be given sculptures that are impregnated with nuclear waste to boost their exposure to radiation (and their health). He does caution, “However, children should not ride [sculptures of] radioactive ponies for more than a few minutes every day”.
I had never heard of radiation hormesis, so I got in touch with several health physicists in the UK and I was genuinely surprised to get a mixed verdict on the theory. Although they all agreed that hormesis was at the fringes of health physics, some did say that there could be something to it.
Indeed, I was told that the theory has a small but very vocal group of supporters, particularly in France, Japan and the US, who have been lobbying the International Commission on Radiological Protection to look into revising its Linear No-Threshold (LNT) principle. The LNT maintains that there is no exposure level below which radiation has no harmful effects (although these effects are extremely small at very low levels).
The reality is that it is very difficult to understand the effects — good or bad — of very low levels of radiation. As a result, the literature is full of seemingly conflicting reports and scientists who have a passionate belief in radiation hormesis can pick and choose studies that support the theory, while dismissing those that don’t.
A case in point is the controversial 1995 study by Bernard Cohen, which suggested that people living in parts of the US with high levels of the radioactive gas radon tend to be less likely to die from lung cancer — strong evidence for radiation hormesis, according to Luckey. However, in 2003, Jerry Puskin showed that this could be explained by considering the different rates of smoking in these regions — something that Luckey seems to have ignored in his latest paper.
So, will my children be playing on a radioactive pony? I don’t think so!