Volume 7  Number 3  May 5, 2010
Second Opinions

Radiation Hormesis

When Tsutomu Yamaguchi died early this year at 93 he was eulogized as a "star-crossed rarity:" A man who lived through two atomic blasts, at Hiroshima and then at Nagasaki he was not alone. He was one of 165 people who are believed to have survived Hiroshima only to wind up in Nagasaki when that bomb fell 3 days later. The stories of these double survivors are included in Charles Pellegrino's fascinating and sober new book The Last Train from Hiroshima. The Japanese called the atom bomb the pika-don, the "flash bang." One lesson was this: If you see and survive the pika, you have a few seconds to duck. The don is on its way. (Book Review. NYT Jan. 20, 2010.)

In stark contrast to the horrors of atomic weapons, the source of so much confusion about the danger of any radiation exposure there is hope for the phobic. Some lines of inquiry seem to suggest that very small amounts of radiation above background, rather than being harmful are in fact beneficial. This effect is called radiation hormesis, like hormone, a derivation from the Greek word "hormaein." meaning "to excite." Despite the fact that high doses of ionizing radiation are detrimental, some data from both humans and animals suggests that biologic functions are stimulated by low dose radiation (Luckey 1980). Although this may seem similar to homeopathy, radiation hormesis is quite different and less likely to be considered placebo effect.

For example The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) reported in 1994, that among A-bomb survivors from Japan who received doses below 100 mSv mortality caused by leukemia was lower than age-matched controls. In some age categories of A-bomb survivors from Nagasaki, the observed annual death rate is less than what is statistically expected. In 1980 Kumatori et al. reported in their 25 year follow up study of Japanese fishermen who were heavily contaminated by plutonium from the hydrogen bomb tests at Bikini, that no one died from cancer. In other continuing studies in Kerala India with high background radiation levels, the incidence and mortality rates of cancer may be significantly less than in areas of normal background. In the U.S.A., one study suggested that the total cancer mortality is inversely correlated with background radiation dose (Cohen. 1993).

Admittedly, the concept of radiation hormesis is still controversial, and is rejected by major U.S. Government Agencies, such as the National Academy of Science. Dr. Paul Rosch points out in his fascinating newsletter 75,000 people a year seek treatment for arthritic and other complaints at a dozen radon spas in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Japan, and in Boulder, Montana whom I contacted.*

As for radon, if you live in an area where, in order to sell your house, radon concentrations in your basement must be under a ridiculously low level, a way to avoid problems is simply turn on the exhaust fan for 5-10 days before the inspectors arrive with their GM monitors. You’ll probably pass.

* The Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine states in their literature, "This mine facility is a healing retreat that is made available to persons seeking an alternative or complement to present treatment for arthritis pain relief and other disease symptom management…At this facility, 32 hours of radon exposure over a 10 day stay is the equivalent of approximately 6 mSv or 0.6 rads or 0.6 rems or 0.6 Roentgens. This amount is just about twice the radiation exposure from normally occurring background sources that all persons receive annually throughout their life..."

Martin F. Sturman, MD, FACP

Copyright 2010, Mathemedics, Inc.

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