Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beneficial Effects of Radiation

In the early 1980s, a Taiwan steel company accidentally mixed some highly radioactive cobalt-60 into a batch of steel rebar. The radioactive rods were then used in the construction of 1,700 apartments. As a result, people living in these buildings were subject to radiation up to 30 times the normal amount received from the natural background.
When dismayed officials discovered this enormous error 15 years later, they surveyed past and present apartment dwellers expecting to find an epidemic of cancer. Normal incidence would have predicted 160 cancers among the 10,000 residents. To their astonishment, the researchers discovered only five cases of cancer—97% lower than the anticipated amount. Birth defects were also 94% below the anticipated rate. These findings were published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons in 2004. As one researcher phrased it, exposure to high levels of background radiation had apparently bestowed upon residents "an effective immunity from cancer."

The residents of the Taiwan apartments experienced 10 times the level of radiation as is prevalent in the evacuation zone around Fukishima. The etiology of radiation-related disease is well-known. Radiation can cause DNA damage but the body has repair mechanisms to deal with it. Last December scientists at Berkeley made microscopic videotapes of these cellular repair sites in action. "Our data show that at lower doses of ionizing radiation, DNA repair mechanisms work much better than at higher doses," wrote Mina Bissell, a world-renowned breast cancer researcher who co-authored the report. "This non-linear DNA damage response casts doubt on the general assumption that any amount of ionizing radiation is harmful and additive." Other researchers speculate that low radiation doses may immunize the body against cancer and birth defects by stimulating these repair mechanisms into greater responsiveness, just as vaccines stimulate the immune system. That would explain the low cancer rates in Taiwan.

The Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2012, link

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