29 July 2008

Radiation schmadiation

Predictably, the reactionaries over at Treehugger went to town over this granite counter radiation thing. So much so that I dropped them from my blogroll. It's a pity too. Treehugger started as a forum for rational discussion about sustainability got hijacked by the eco-madmen on the fringes. Anyhow, the guy from Treehugger who picked up the supposed story and ran with it to all kinds of illogical and irrational ends got taken to task in the reader comments that followed his posting. It very nearly renewed my faith in humanity. So humanity's off the hook but alas, Treehugger's going to have to work a little harder to win back my favor. I know, that has them shaking in their boots I'm sure.

Anyhow, here's what my new hero Anthony posted on the granite story on Treehugger:
Most elements have naturally occurring radioactive isotopes. Most objects you encounter are mildly radioactive. For example, living next door to a nuclear power plant generally provides a radiation dose equivalent to eating one banana a day, or sleeping with someone else instead of by yourself.

This article speaks of picocuries but gives no information about what kind of dose people living in a home with such a counter top could be expected to actually receive. How many millirem/year would be much more relevant, since rem is the most widely accepted unit of biologically equivalent dose.

Natural background radiation in most parts of the human-inhabited world ranges from 300-600 millirem/year or so. In some it is as low as 200, in others as high as 10,000. And every study done comparing individuals experiencing different levels of background radiation thus far has shown no indication that low-level doses affect the rate of cancer in any statistically observable way.

And the comparison with smoking is not only unlikely, but misleading as well. Yes, smoking allows more radiation to get to the lungs- several thousand millirem per year, by some estimates I've seen. But that isn't why smoking causes cancer. Lung cancer caused by smoking comes from the chemical toxins in the cigarettes, not radiation. Radiation is actually a remarkably weak carcinogen. For example, the >100,000 atomic bomb survivors who have been studied extensively since 1945 have shown only a 6% higher rate of cancer than the general population.

Please, put the risks in perspective. Even taking for granted the hypothesis that low-dose radiation works just like high-dose radiation (the linear non-threshold hypothesis, that risk of cancer varies linearly with dose all the way down to 0 dose), very few deaths are caused by radiation. We knowingly live with many, many toxins and carcinogens in our home far more dangerous than granite counter tops. We willingly get into our cars and ride our bikes with nary a thought. This is as bad as the fear-mongering over the mercury in CFL's.

Anthony, I have no idea who you are but you deserve an award.

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