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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Koyal Group Info Mag Review: Shaping Public Perceptions of Radiation Risk

On Monday, November 17, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 5544, the Low Dose Radiation Research Act, which called for the National Academies to “conduct a study assessing the current status and development of a long-term strategy for low dose radiation research.”

Coincidentally that was the same day that the National Academy of Sciences hosted a publicly accessible, all day meeting to determine if there had been enough new developments in radiation health effects research to justify the formation of a new BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) committee. If formed, that would be BEIR VIII, the latest in a series of committees performing a survey of available research on the health effects of atomic (now ionizing) radiation.

I had the pleasure of attending the meeting, which was held in the ornate NAS building on Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC. There were about 20 presenters talking about various aspects of the scientific and political considerations associated with the decision to form BEIR VIII. Several of the presenters had performed experimental research under the currently moribund Department of Energy’s Low Dose radiation research program.

That intriguing program was using modern genetics techniques to learn a great deal about the dynamic nature of DNA in organisms and about the ways that living tissues isolate and repair recurring damage that comes as a result of metabolic processes, heat, chemicals and ionizing radiation. It was defunded gradually beginning in 2009 and completely by 2011, with the money making its way to solar and wind energy research as the Office of Science shifted its priorities under a flat top line budget.

The agenda allocated a considerable amount of time for public comments. There were a couple of members of the audience interested in the science falsifying the “no safe dose” model who took advantage of the opportunities to speak, but so did a number of professional antinuclear activists from Maryland, Ohio, New York and Tennessee.

Need Better Results This Time

An epic struggle with important health, safety, cost and energy abundance implications is shaping up with regard to the way that the officially sanctioned science and regulatory bodies treat the risks and benefits associated with using ionizing radiation at low doses and dose rates for medical uses, industrial uses and power production.

We must make sure that this battle for science, hearts and minds is not as asymmetrical as the one fought in the period between 1954-1964. One skirmish in the battle worth winning will be to encourage the passage of the Low Dose Radiation Research Act and the annual appropriations that will enable it to function long into the future.

Here is a brief version of that lengthy prior engagement, where there were huge winners and losers. Losers included truth, general prosperity, peace and the environment. Partial winners included people engaged in the global hydrocarbon economy in finance, exploration, extraction, refinement, transportation, tools, machines and retail distribution. There were also big financial winners in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, oncology, and agriculture.

Rockefeller Funded Survey

During a 1954 Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees meeting, several of the trustees asked the President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) if his esteemed organization would be willing to review what was known about the biological effects of atomic radiation.

The board did not have to pick up the phone or send a letter to make that request. Detlev Bronk, who was the serving president of the NAS, was already at the table as a full member of the Rockefeller Foundation Board of Trustees. The board agreed that, based on their interpretations of recent media coverage, the public was confused and not properly informed about the risks of radiation exposure and the potential benefits of the Atomic Age.
The tasking given to the NAS was to form a credible committee that would study the science and issue a report “in a form accessible to seriously concerned citizens.”1

Aside: For historical context, that Foundation board meeting took place within months after President Eisenhower made his “Atoms for Peace” speech in December 1953. That speech to the United Nations announced a shift in focus of the Atomic Age from weapons development to more productive applications like electrical power generation and ship propulsion.

At the time the request to the NAS was made, the Rockefeller Foundation had been funding radiation biology-related research for at least 30 years, including the Drosophila mutation experiments that Hermann Muller conducted during the 1920s at the University of Texas. Foundation board members and supported scientists had been following developments in atomic science since the earliest discoveries of radiation and the dense energy stored inside atomic nuclei.

In March 1948, the Tripartite Conferences on radiation protection, a group that included experienced radiation researchers and practitioners from the US, Canada and the UK, had determined that the permissible doses for humans should be reduced from 1 mGy/day (in SI units) to 0.5 mGy/day or 3 mGy/week.

That reduction was not made because of any noted negative health effects, but to provide an additional safety factor.

In between these two extremes there is a level of exposure, — in the neighborhood of 0.1 r/day — which all experience to date show to be safe, but the time of observation of large numbers of people exposed at this rate under controlled conditions, is too short to permit a categorical assertion to this effect.2

End Aside.

Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation

The first NAS Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation committee began its work in April 1955. There were six subcommittees, each of which authored a section of the committee’s report. The report was identified as a preliminary version that was to be followed with a more technically detailed report scheduled to appear within the next couple of years, if desired by responsible government agencies.

Unlike the documents supporting the permissible dose limits that came out of the Tripartite Commission mentioned in the aside above, the NAS BEAR 1 committee report, especially the section from the Genetics Committee, was professionally promoted and received extensive media coverage and public attention.

The NAS held a press conference announcing the release of the report and answering questions in Washington, DC on June 12. Among other media attention, that press conference resulted in no less than six related articles in the June 13, 1956 edition of the New York Times. Several additional articles were published during the following weeks. The selection of pieces included a lengthy article that started at the top of the right hand column of the paper and continued with another 20-25 column inches on page 17. Read full article here

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