• Sannah van Balen

Q3. What are the health effects of radiation?

Radiation is scary, there is no denying of it. As we’ve explored previously, one of the reasons radiation is perceived by most of us as scary is due to the imagery and the associations with its effects on our health, be it radiation sickness, cancers or birth defects. We have all seen the scary photos that claim to show birth defects after Chernobyl. Indeed, this fear is so potent sometimes that it impacts our health far beyond the impacts of any radiation exposure.

Whilst there is no doubt that getting too much radiation too quickly can be dangerous there is, however, much confusion and myths about the actual impacts of radiation on our health. Radiation is one, if not the most, well-research carcinogens, with countless of billions of dollars having been spent on understanding its health effects. How much is required to cause cancer? Will any radiation dose increase the risk of cancer? Will nuclear power and its radiation put my unborn baby in harm’s way? Let’s shed some light on this tricky issue!

Radiation sickness

When you undoubtedly watched HBO’s Chernobyl series, you will have seen the gruesome effects of Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), or radiation sickness as most of us know it as. Its symptoms are undoubtedly scary, almost straight of the pages of a horror novel, with hair and skin falling off, vomiting, bleeding and many, many more rather unpleasant effects. This is also how many of us think about radiation and its health effects.

However, it would take astronomical amounts of radiation before you start to develop ARS, and even more radiation before you start to exhibit the more severe symptoms of it. Only about 50 people have ever died due to ARS, 28 of them at Chernobyl, the rest have mostly been workplace accidents at laboratories.

Radiation and cancer

The association between radiation and cancers goes back a long while, and the imagery of mutating rays is deeply ingrained into our relationship with cancer. Radiation has the potential to damage our DNA – something that all life has been exposed to for billions of years – but our cells have very sophisticated repair mechanisms to counter such damage. If, however, you are exposed to a lot of radiation over a very short timeframe, the repair mechanisms might become just overwhelmed enough for misrepairs to take place.

Cancer does not appear because of a single misrepair, but would rather require a large amount of misrepairs and in certain places of the DNA. It is vastly more likely that the cell will die before the “right” misrepairs take place, which is one of the reasons why radiation does not really cause as many cancers as one would believe. In order to even increase the risk of cancer but 0.4% - against the natural cancer rate of 35-50% - you would have to be exposed to some 100mSv (40 times above global average background radiation) within mere minutes. It would take astronomical doses, like 1000mSv, to increase the risk of cancer by some 5% - but at these doses, it is mostly a question of surviving the ARS.

After the Chernobyl accident and the mishandling of it by Soviet authorities, some 8000 people developed thyroid cancers, of which 15 sadly died. The likelihood of any further cancers due to Chernobyl are extremely low, with no scientific evidence supporting it. After the Fukushima accident, hardly a single cancer case is expected, as doses were very low.

In short, radiation can cause cancers, but it is really difficult to be exposed to the doses required to even slightly increase the risk of cancer. A great number of other things are much more likely to cause cancer, be it smoking, breathing oxygen, living in a big city, and the list goes on.

Radiation and birth defects

Right behind cancer, fears about birth defects due to radiation exposure are likely to follow. It is a most natural of fears, but one which has no scientific evidence to back those fears. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, people have alleged that there was a significant increase in birth defects, due to radiation contamination. However, numerous reviews and inquires, some led by the UN, into the accident, and radiation exposure more broadly, has concluded that the doses women were exposed to as a result of the accident and the ensuring radiation contamination was far too long to have caused any birth defects. Some studies have even found that there were statistically significantly less birth defects in the high contamination areas compared with low contamination areas.

However, we have all seen the pictures, and heard the stories about children being born with birth defects in the areas surrounding Chernobyl. Unfortunately, birth defects are much more common across the world than most think – the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that birth defects affect 1 in every 33 babies born in the US. The images you find on Google that are genuine – some are clearly altered to make for scary propaganda – from the affected areas are simply part of the naturally-occurring birth defects, as the radiation levels their mothers would be exposed to are far, far too low to have any impacts whatsoever on the foetus.

- John Lindberg

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