Tom Bethell's book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science is, as its name suggests, a deliberately provocative and iconoclastic look at some of the scientific orthodoxies of our day. While it's hard to escape the suspicion that Bethell is not always giving us both sides of the story, his entry in the P.I.G. series is nevertheless a breezy, entertaining, and thought-provoking read.
Nowhere is this more true than in Chapter 3, cheekily titled "Good Vibes," which deals with the subject of radiation hormesis.
What is radiation hormesis? Hormesis is the principle that while high doses of something may be toxic, low doses may actually be beneficial. For instance, alcohol in high doses is very toxic; it's possible to die of alcohol poisoning. But at low doses, alcohol has well-documented beneficial health effects, particularly in regard to the cardiovascular system. Similarly, many of the ingredients in multivitamin tablets -- potassium, iron, etc. -- are toxic at high levels but healthful and even essential to life in trace amounts. Examples could be multiplied, and in fact Bethell spends all of Chapter 4 on chemical hormesis.
But radiation hormesis? Is it conceivable that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, can actually improve our health? Bethell amasses a pretty extensive stack of evidence to support this very contention.
- A 1991 study showed that shipyard workers exposed to low levels of radiation while working on Navy nuclear reactors "had 24 percent lower death rates and 25 percent lower cancer mortality" than unexposed workers.
- British radiologists "were half as likely to die of cancer as other physicians who had not worked with X-ray machines."
- When a University of Georgia toxicologist visited Chernobyl, site of a catastrophic nuclear meltdown in 1986, he found that mice in the area were thriving. "They just seem to soak it up," he said, adding that life may be "far more resilient to high levels of radioactivity than we anticipated."
- A 1997 Washington Post article observed, "In Japan, site of the world's only nuclear attacks, radiation victims are outliving their peers.... As expected, the people closest to ground zero have died in high numbers ... But as one moves further from the blast site, the death rate plunges until it actually dips below the baseline."
- Colorado has roughly twice the average ambient level of natural radiation as low-lying areas of the United States, yet its cancer rates are only two-thirds of the national average.
- A comprehensive study of the relationship between radon exposure and lung cancer showed that lung cancer rates decreased as radon exposure increased.
- In Taiwan, Bethell reports, apartment residents lived in a building that had been "accidentally contaminated with cobalt-60 ... Over a period of 16 years, some 10,000 occupants were exposed to levels of radiation that should have induced cancers many times in excess of background expectations. Taiwan health statistics predicted 170 cancers among an age-matched [non-exposed] population of this size. But only five were observed."
- In the town of Ramar in northern Iran, the locals live in rock houses high in radium. But when their "blood samples were subjected to a 'challenge dose' of gamma rays, it was found that [they] had only half the number of chromosomal aberrations that had been induced in the normal controls."
Bethell closes the chapter by observing the new trend toward low-level radiation clinics and spas. So-called therapeutic radiation, obtained at "radon spas," is becoming popular in Japan, Germany, and Russia. Even the United States has such a spa, a radioactive silver and lead mind in Boulder, Montana, where customers can expose themselves to a radon concentration 400 times greater than what the EPA considers safe. Bethell also notes that "many of the famous European spas [of ancient times] correspond to radon sites." Although the ancients knew nothing about radiation, they apparently recognized the healthful properties of those particular sites.
What explanation could there be for this anomaly? Bethell speculates that life on earth evolved in a more radiation-rich atmosphere, and that our bodies, and those of other living things, function optimally in an environment that is relatively high in ambient radiation.
It's almost enough to make you hope Iran does get the Bomb.