The Week That Was March 30-April 5, 1998

An e-mail update from The Science & Environmental Policy Project

Great news! Dr. Theodore Rockwell, a pioneer in nuclear energy development and expert in the health effects of radiation, has joined SEPP as a cooperating scientist. His publications and other activities will add considerable strength to our efforts to ensure that sound science is used to set environmental policies. Along with Dr. Malcolm Ross, Dr. Thomas Sheahen, and other SEPP scientists, Ted will be available to speak on and answer questions about such diverse topics as the design of advanced atomic reactors, nuclear bombs and nuclear disarmament, the safe disposal of spent nuclear fuel and weapons-grade plutonium, and the real and imagined health hazards of radon. SEPP Advisory Board member Dr. Chauncey Starr, (founding) director emeritus of the Electric Power Research Institute, will as always provide guidance on difficult scientific and political issues, drawing on his long experience in the nuclear field.


What better way then to start this edition of TWTW than to revisit the radon scare. The EPA has long been frustrated because the public just can't get alarmed about exposure to indoor radon in homes and hasn't been willing to spend the billions of dollars required to monitor and mitigate radon. But now the EPA appears to have found some prestigious-sounding scientific backing that radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas pervading the atmosphere, will kill you if you smoke in your own home. Wow! Looks like the EPA can kill two birds with one stone. But the science just isn't there: smoking can give you lung cancer, for sure, but low levels of radon don't.

Not in the least discouraged, the National Research Council (NRC), the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, organized a press briefing on Feb. 19, 1998, announcing its "new" study on the health effects of radon -- without releasing the report itself (for scrutiny by independent scientists.) The New York Times headlines proclaimed "Research ties radon to as many as 21,800 deaths each year," and it was downhill from then on. But as duly chronicled in the story, the NRC had presented the same results in its 1988 and 1991 reports. Nothing new here; just more noise.

The frightening NRC numbers are based on nothing more than a purely mathematical extrapolation from high-level radon exposures experienced by uranium miners to the extremely low levels found in households. To use an analogy, if drinking a gallon of alcohol will kill you, then, according to the NRC, so will the same amount distributed over a whole year, roughly one drink per week. Or put another way: if the gallon is divided among 52 people, one of them will surely die. NRC's mathematical extrapolation simply assumes that a safe threshold (below which no harm is done) doesn't exist -- an assumption that has been thoroughly discredited, not only for radiation exposures but also for toxic chemicals.

Not so long ago, radioactivity was quite the craze. European mineral waters boasted of their radioactive content; health spas bragged about their radioactive waters containing dissolved radon. Hungary still advertises a spa on Lake Heviz with a certified level a million times (!) the EPA "safe" level of 300 picocuries of radioactivity per liter of water. Bathing in Lake Heviz is said to cure most medical problems, with notable exceptions like malignant tumors and alcoholism. Whatever one may think of these fantastic claims, however, there is now a sizeable body of scientific opinion that exposure to low levels, below a certain threshold, is not harmful, and can indeed produce positive health benefits.

This is not a minor matter by any means; nor is the threshold controversy confined just to radon. The whole issue of the safe disposal of spent nuclear reactor fuel hinges on whether there is a threshold, and what its magnitude is. Newspaper stories about the NRC radon study did not touch on this topic. Nor did they provide perspective and mention that radiation exposure (to cosmic rays) increases at high altitudes, when living in mile-high Denver or flying at 30,000 ft in aircraft.

The NRC panel blithely dismissed the contrary conclusions of Professor Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, whose painstaking research based on real data about lung cancer in households has established the existence of a threshold. That is, the level the EPA considers to be dangerous is in fact perfectly safe.

So who should one believe? Is the NRC report credible? Perhaps we should take our cue from Big Environment activist groups and "follow the money." The Environmental Protection Agency was the major sponsor of the four-year(!) NRC study, which must have cost the taxpayer a pretty penny -- even though it rehashed old reports. Why are we not surprised then that the EPA issued a statement that "the study fully supports [previous] EPA estimates."

And this brings us to one of the more alarming conclusions of the NRC report, namely that much of the "risk" of radon could be eliminated if people stopped smoking in their homes (emphasis added). There is absolutely no science to back up this conclusion; smoking, all by itself, is much more likely to induce lung cancer than any levels of radon in buildings. But perhaps the NRC is on to something. Now that smoking has been banned in the workplace, in restaurants, and even in bars in some areas of the country, maybe it's time for the EPA to ban smoking at home. We suppose that pollution from kitchen stoves and wood-burning fireplaces would be next.

Now that we think of it, wood burning should really be outlawed because it releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Bad, bad! As our environmentally conscious Vice President will confirm, we've got to cut down forests and replant trees so as to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. But what to do with the wood if we can't burn it? Well, never fear; we can always turn it into paper and print forms for annual reports to the EPA on the household use of energy so that the BTU police can get after you it looks like you are burning too many lights and not conserving enough.

With this nightmare scenario, we'd better close before we dream up even scarier ones. But we invite readers to dream up their own favorite nightmares and send them to us.


Here's a follow-up to last week's issue. A reader, Nick Carter from Australia, informs us that King Canute really needs a decent press officer.

"Rather than being a megalomaniac convinced of his omnipotence, he was an enlightened ruler who despaired of his courtiers attributing god-like powers to him. To convince them of his human fallibility he had his throne sat in the water and commanded the tide not to rise. Eventually his courtiers had to beg him to leave the water before he drowned. A pity a few more of the worlds current 'rulers' aren't imbued with such humility. Some even think they can stop glaciers retreating!!"

TW2 is compiled by SEPP staff

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