How dangerous is low-level radiation to children?

Far more children are now believed to have died as a result of the Chernobyl accident than at first thought. Image: By Michał Lis on Unsplash

A rethink on the risks of low-level radiation would imperil the nuclear industry’s future − perhaps why there’s never been one.

LONDON, 22 May, 2020 − The threat that low-level radiation poses to human life, particularly to unborn children, and its link with childhood leukaemia, demands an urgent scientific reassessment.

This is the conclusion of a carefully-detailed report produced for the charity Children With Cancer UK by the Low-Level Radiation Campaign.

It is compiled from evidence contained in dozens of scientific reports from numerous countries over many decades, which show that tiny doses of radiation, some of it inhaled, can have devastating effects on the human body, particularly by causing cancer and birth defects.

The original reports were completed for a range of academic institutions, governments and medical organisations, and their results were compared by the newest report’s authors, Richard Bramhall and Pete Wilkinson.  They believe they have provided overwhelming evidence for a basic rethink on so-called “safe” radiation doses.

They write: “The fundamental conclusion of this report is that when the evidence is rationally assessed it appears that the health impacts, especially in the more radio-sensitive young, have been consistently and routinely underestimated.”

Ceaseless controversy

The pair concede this is not the first time such a call has been made, but it has never been acted upon. Now they say it must be.

What constitutes safety for nuclear workers and for civilians living near nuclear power stations, or affected by fall-out from accidents like the ones at Sellafield in Cumbria in north-west England in 1957, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, has always been highly controversial.

Bramhall and Wilkinson detail how the debate began in earnest in the 1980s, when a cluster of childhood leukaemia cases, ten times higher than would be expected, was identified around Sellafield.

Government inquiries followed but reached no settled conclusion, and low-level radiation safety has been a scientific battleground ever since.

The official agencies appointed by governments are still using dose estimates based on calculations made in 1943, when Western governments were trying to develop an atomic bomb.

“The discrepancy between the number of congenital malformations in babies expected after Chernobyl and the number actually observed was between 15,000 and 50,000”

The new report highlights that this was when very little was known about how tiny doses of ingested radiation could affect the body − and when DNA was yet to be discovered.

Despite the fact that international standards are based on these scientifically ancient, out-of-date assumptions, they have not been revised. If they were, the results could be catastrophic for the nuclear industry and for the manufacturers of nuclear weapons.

The report makes clear that if the worst estimates of the damage that low-level radiation causes to children proved anywhere close to correct, then no-one would want to live anywhere near a nuclear power station.

Most would be appalled if they knew even small numbers of children living within 50 kilometres of a station would contract leukaemia from being so close.

It acknowledges that the stakes are high. If the authors’ findings are accepted, then it will be the end of public tolerance of nuclear power.

Revolution needed

Despite this long-lived institutional pushback from governments and the industry, the report says what is needed is a scientific revolution in the way that low-level radiation is considered. It compares the situation with the treatment of asbestos.

It was in the 1890s that the first evidence of disease related to asbestos exposure was laid before the UK Parliament. But it was not until 1972, when the causal link between the always fatal lung cancer, mesothelioma, and human fatality rates was established beyond reasonable doubt, that the use of asbestos was banned.

This delay is why on average 2,700 people still die annually in the UK: they were at some point exposed to and inhalers of asbestos.

Another example, which the report does not quote but is perhaps as relevant today, is air pollution. It has taken decades for the scientific community to realise that in many cities it is the tiniest particles of air pollution, invisible to the naked eye, that are taken deepest into the lungs and that cause the most damage, killing thousands of people a year.

So far governments across the world have not yet outlawed the vehicles and industrial processes that are wiping out their own citizens in vast numbers.

Anxiety not irrational

The report cites many studies, with perhaps the most telling those that compare the actual numbers of cancers and malformations in babies which occurred in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident with the numbers to have been expected if the currently accepted and out-of-date risk calculations had been used.

Despite the difficulties of getting information from reluctant governments close to Chernobyl, the report says: “The discrepancy between the number of congenital malformations in babies expected after Chernobyl and the number actually observed was between 15,000 and 50,000.”

The authors say their object “is to dispel the repeated assertion that public anxiety about the health impact of radioactivity in the environment is irrational.”

Both Wilkinson and Bramhall have considerable experience of dealing with governments, both inside official bodies as members, and as external lobbyists.

They detail how they believe the concerns of both ordinary people and scientists have been swept aside in order to preserve the status quo. Clearly, in sponsoring the report, Children with Cancer UK agrees. − Climate News Network