Lions and tigers and BEIRs, oh my! Specifically, BEIR VI, which is the sixth report of the Board on the Effects of Ionizing Radiation.
BEIR VI is the latest effort to bilk homeowners out of more than $10 billion in the jihad against household radon, a radioactive gas that probably harms no one at the household level. The report was issued in February by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, and was co-funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Headed by Johns Hopkins University Professor Jonathan Samet, BEIR VI claims radon that seeps up naturally into homes causes roughly 21,800 lung cancer deaths every year in America, though it may be as many as 30,000.
Radon, said Samet, "poses an important public health risk, and it should be recognized as such."
Samet and his fellow Radonistas have pushed this line for a decade, so they're not suddenly going to admit they're wrong. But they did include a sentence in the inch-thick report that said maybe, just maybe, they're not right.
"Although a linear-nonthreshold model was selected," the report said, "the committee recognized that a threshold, that is a level of exposure with no added risk, could exist and not be identifiable from the available epidemiological data."
Translation: The report concludes that if massive amounts of radon can kill, so can an amount so tiny that an amoeba would trip over it in the dark.
Nobody questions that uranium miners breathing huge amounts of radon suffer extraordinary rates of lung cancer. But we also know that the body has multilayered defenses for throwing off minor assaults.
Rather than simply extrapolating from miner data, many studies compare high-radon households with lowradon ones. With few exceptions, people living in high-radon homes have no more lung cancers - or even have significantly fewer cases - than people living in low-radon homes. Yet the Radonistas gloss over these studies.
The Radonistas claim that none of the other studies, no matter how extensive, is big enough to prove beyond doubt there's no risk from household radon. Strictly speaking, that may be true. But the studies can establish that any possible risk is negligible.
The largest household study to date, from Finland, concluded: "Our results suggest no important public health impact for indoor radon exposure." The wording is almost the opposite of Samet's.
Further, the household studies provide no support for the Radonistas' linear, nonthreshold theory.
That could explain why Finland and Canada have set their abatement levels - those at which radon should be reduced - roughly five times as high as the EPA's. Even safety-obsessed Sweden allows more than twice as much radon as the EPA.
BEIR VI admits that radon probably causes only about 2,900 deaths among American nonsmokers each year. Even if the EPA's advice were followed, it says only 1,000 of those deaths would be prevented - out of 160,000 annual lung cancer deaths.
But the radon jihad may impose huge costs. If you take BEIR VI's estimate of how many homes would need abatement and multiply it by the average cost of abatement calculated in a 1990 article co- authored by an EPA official, then testing for excess radon and getting rid of it would cost $13 billion in today's dollars. Add to that $250 million a year to run and maintain the abatement equipment.
Yet even those who've studied the miners, such as Dr. Gino Saccomanno of St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., question whether anything shy of massive radon exposure can kill.
Saccomanno has studied uranium miner disease for 40 years, and has by far the largest miner database in the country. He hasn't found a single case of lung cancer among nonsmoking uranium miners who breathe in radon eight hours a day, five days a week. A homeowner would have to breathe in what the EPA considers "dangerous" levels of radon for 400 years to get that kind of exposure.
"I hate to see the public get taken like this," an exasperated Saccomanno said.
New York University physicist and radon expert Dr. Naomi Harley can't say for sure whether there is a threshold effect for radon. But she is certain BEIR VI grossly overstates the risk.
It turns out she has three patents on radon monitors. "So you have a financial interest in scaring the hell out of people," I said.
"Yes," she replied, "but it's not right."
Well! No commission in the Radonista army for her!
Michael Fumento is a science adviser to the Atlantic Legal Foundation and author of "The Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves" (Viking, 1997).
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