Thursday, June 22, 2000

Radiation risks examined

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

A scientist whose research has raised serious questions about the public health risks associated with radiation exposure in and around U.S. Energy Department facilities, such as the now-mothballed Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, will speak in Boulder this weekend.

Steven Wing, a researcher at the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, will lecture on Friday evening about the risks that radiation poses to people who have worked in -- or lived around -- DOE nuclear weapons plants. On Saturday, Wing will host a workshop designed to give people opportunities to ask questions about the health risks associated with radiation exposure.

The lecture and the workshop will both be held at the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice center, located at 1520 Euclid Ave. in Boulder. Both events are free and open to the public.

Wing first gained national prominence in 1991, when he published his research study findings of workers at the DOE's nuclear weapons laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Wing's research showed that Oak Ridge workers who had been exposed to on-the-job radiation levels far below DOE standards were dying from leukemia much faster than their counterparts in the general public.

Then, in a follow-up study published earlier this year, Wing found that workers at four DOE nuclear weapons facilities -- Oak Ridge, Hanford (Wash), Los Alamos (N.M.) and Savannah River (S.C) -- were dying at elevated levels of multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer that affects blood-forming tissues. Again, Wing found that none of the workers who succumbed to the disease had been exposed to radiation levels exceeding federal standards.

According to Wing, the findings indicate that official radiation protection standards are set far too low.

"The issues that I've raised have to do with whether or not there are detrimental health effects from exposure to low levels of radiation, and how big those health effects might be," Wing said in a telephone interview from his UNC office.

Because of this research, Wing has become a leading critic of the methodology by which the government currently sets radiation protection standards. The levels are in large part based on studies of people who survived the World War II-era atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

"The issue of standards setting involves who decides what risks are acceptable," Wing said. "That in some ways is really a public-policy issue.

Wing said that his research indicates that there is plenty of information that is "not being brought to the table" when decisions are made regarding the establishment of radiation protection standards. Wing says that the exclusion of his information has been very troubling -- for reasons that go far beyond the realm of pure science.

"The question is, in a democracy, who should be at the table when those decisions are made?" he asked.

For more information about this weekend's events, call the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center at 303-444-6981.