As part of my thesis research two years ago, I spent quite a bit of time poring over old newspapers in Banff, which spent the 1910s and 1920s exhorting tourists to visit the hot springs because the radiation emitted by the radium in the water was good for you. It was amusing (not least because of the insignificant level of radiation) and, I thought, ancient history. Not so. Today National Post columnist Lawrence Solomon has published an inexcusable piece suggesting we don’t need to worry about people living around the Fukushima reactors (or any reactors) because radiation is good for you. What’s even more unforgivable is that he appears to have lifted the idea for this ridiculous column from American muttonhead Ann Coulter.
Absurdly, Solomon chooses now, of all times, to footnote his column with a bio gloss identifying himself as a director of Energy Probe, which I caught two weeks ago attempting to astroturf a very willing Post. Energy Probe is an anti-nuclear organization, so this is a strange position for them to say the least. Unless of course they’re just energy industry sympathizers who will say any old thing that meets the needs of the moment. Solomon also thinks climate change is a myth, so anything he says should obviously be taken with several heaps of salt.
I’m very unhappy with media reporting on the Fukushima reactors. We have a very good idea what went wrong (a backup generator system that wasn’t designed to cope with a tsunami, a backup battery system that wasn’t designed to function at all, and a containment building that wasn’t designed to handle high pressure, all of which could have been properly recognized and resolved by government inspectors back when the plants were built in the 1970s, or at any time since). Yet now we’re hearing about the risk posed by nuclear plants hundreds of miles inland, where there are (obviously) no tsunamis. On the other hand, a company spokesman got away with the idiotic statement that radiation spikes of up to 11,900 microsieverts per hour were less than what you’d get from an X-ray. Basically you can say anything, and if you’re wearing a respectable suit and hat, the media will quote it as though it were gospel.
The most disturbing part of this, though, is that Solomon’s remarks bear a disturbing resemblance to a recent piece of BS from American right-wing darling Ann Coulter (for Canadian readers who don’t know her, think of her as a particularly vile cousin of Fox News, always long on hate and short on substance). She printed a column, “A Glowing Report,” claiming that heightened background radiation (but not very high radiation, which she agrees is bad) lowers cancer risk. Then she went on Bill O’Reilly’s show to discuss her views further. Since O’Reilly is no fan of science himself, believing that only the Bible can explain why the sun rises in the morning or why the tides happen, that must have been quite a discussion.
Incredibly, Solomon (unlike Coulter) does seem to recognize that most scientists disagree with him on the basis of what he calls the “linear no-threshold assumption.” That is, scientists argue that extremely low levels of radiation have no detectable effect either way, but as it increases the effects clearly become harmful (and then very harmful indeed), so it is safe to assume that there is always damage done to our cells, in proportion to the level of radiation we are exposed to.
Solomon goes straight into cloud cuckoo land with his next logical inference, though. He claims that “assuming danger where none exists is in itself dangerous, particularly in a country with the culture of Japan.” I believe this sort of thinking explains a lot about Solomon’s noted climate change denialism. Somehow he manages to make it through the whole piece without explaining what radiation is or what it does to the body, which are fairly important concepts to discuss in this context. I’ll leave it to Pharyngula and David Gorski to do the heavy lifting on this one. Both were reacting to the original Coulter piece, but the points remain equally valid.
If you want to look up papers establishing a link between low-level radiation and elevated cancer risk, I promise you’ll have no trouble doing so. For the moment I’ll just point out something about a Nagasaki survivors’ study that Solomon helpfully links to in order to buttress his argument. It’s explicitly about “non-cancerous mortality,” nor does it contain the passages that Solomon quotes in the article. The real study he quotes from can be found here, and is based on a dataset beginning only in 1970, 25 years after the war.Tweet