Scrutiny expected on radiation risks
A panel concluded last week that even low doses of radiation pose a risk of cancer or other health problems.
By Joe Walker
Monday, July 04, 2005
A new expert panel finding that there is no perfectly safe level of radiation is sure to undergo intense scientific scrutiny worldwide, said Dr. Peter Locken of Paducah, who treats cancer with radiation.
"I think this is probably going to be looked at for years and if it does result in long-term changes, it probably will occur through the regulatory process," he said.
A National Academy of Sciences panel said last week that the bulk of scientific evidence shows even very low doses of radiation pose a risk of cancer or other health problems, and there is no level below which exposure can be viewed as harmless. After five years of study, the panel rejected claims by the nuclear industry and some independent scientists that very low levels of radiation aren't harmful and may even be beneficial.
The finding addresses radiation amounts commonly used in medical treatment and also might ultimately influence radiation levels at sites like the 1,270-employee Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.
Thousands are employed in the Paducah area by virtue of the plant and its cleanup contractors, as well as two regional hospitals and their spin-off medical community. Hundreds of current and former plant workers have sought federal compensation for job-related illness including radiation-induced cancers.
It's "too early to tell" if the finding will change standards on which the compensation program was built, said Richard Miller, Washington-based policy analyst for the Government Accountability Project. Miller, who formerly represented the nuclear workers' union, helped advise writers of the compensation laws.
Miller said all types of leukemias are covered under compensation except for chronic lymphocetic leukemia, which is generally accepted as unrelated to radiation exposure.
"Congress has asked NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) to study that, and this report doesn't ask or answer that question," Miller said. "But it's certainly an area for further research."
Elizabeth Stuckle, spokeswoman for plant operator USEC Inc., declined comment on the panel findings. The Paducah plant is regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"We have more stringent radiation-protection measures at the plant than what is required," she said. "We already take a conservative approach."
Locken said he and other local medical users of radiation are very careful in their approach, but the benefits outweigh the risks. Patients with cancer have little to lose, he said.
"I get a fair amount of exposure and it's not going to change my practice or habits at this time," he said. "I always try to minimize exposure. That's just common sense."
Locken said his practice is licensed by the state and NRC, and meets those regulations as well as medical standards. Medical workers, like nuclear workers, are allowed more radiation exposure than the public, he said.
Dr. Gershom Lundberg, a Paducah radiologist, said it is true that the scientific community generally has accepted the "linear, no threshold" model for radiation risk.
"However, it remains an unproven theory," he said, adding that various studies contradict the no-threshold approach. Almost all studies showing increased incidence of radiation-related cancer are based on high levels of radiation, he said.
Lundburg cited a U.S. study of radon in homes showing a lower incidence of lung cancer in counties with higher levels of radon. A Taiwanese study found significantly lower incidence of lung cancer and birth defects in people living in buildings with cobalt in structural steel than the general population, he said.
But despite the scientific disagreement, it is prudent to limit medical radiation as much as possible, Lundberg said. "My personal philosophy about X-rays is if it won't affect therapy, don't do the test."
A report summary is available at www.nationalacademies.org.