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Accidental Low-Dose Radiation Study Begins

August 3, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Practice Management
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Sixty-six years ago this month, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan unwillingly became the subjects of a long-term mega-study on the effects of radiation exposure. This year, the people living and working around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant have become the equally involuntary subjects of a similar study that’s just beginning.

Said Randolph Carter, PhD, a public-health expert at the University at Buffalo (New York):

Nobody really knows what to expect because there haven’t been studies of large groups of people exposed to low doses of radiation. Most of the information we have on radiation health effects comes from the atomic bomb studies, and those didn’t involve low doses.

Dr. Carter was quoted in a university news release. The “atomic bomb studies” involved the survivors of the World War II bombs dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9). Obviously, no legitimate researcher is going to deliberately expose study subjects to potentially damaging radiation just to see what will happen. So scientists have to take advantage of collateral exposure—such as that which followed the March 11 earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima plant.

Dr. Carter is professor and associate chair of the biostatistics department in the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions. He has worked with the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Japan, which studies the atomic bomb survivors.

“I’d expect that the power plant workers who received high doses would be at increased risk of the same diseases that were seen among atomic bomb survivors, such as thyroid diseases first and leukemia,” he said, “to be followed in subsequent years by small increases in risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, such as hypertension.”

Nearby residents, Dr. Carter said, may escape consequences entirely. “Since the doses were so much lower,” he said, “it may be that we will see nothing in terms of elevated disease levels in the population living near the Fukushima Daiichi plant.”

Some radiation specialists think the cancer danger threshold for cumulative low doses is 500 millisieverts. Others, including Dr. Carter, find evidence of harm at lower doses:

These data indicate that doses below 500 millisieverts and perhaps as low as 160 millisieverts carry an increased risk of leukemia.

Data are scarce, which is why those who lived and worked near the Fukushima plant will get lots of scientific attention in the coming decades.

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Related seminar: ALARA – CT (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) (just released this week)

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