Published on Tuesday, July 5, 2011 by Extra!
Industry Views Prevail on Radiation Risks
Health experts unheard on health effects of Fukushima
by Steve Rendall and Patrick Morrison
In place of a discussion informed by experts on these risks, journalism largely conveys vague, industry-friendly reassurances, frequently including no sources with expertise on the health effects of radiation on humans.
New York Times reporter William Broad reported (3/22/11) that “health experts” deemed a radiation plume that had reached the
Health experts said that the plume’s radiation had been diluted enormously in its journey of thousands of miles and that—at least for now, with concentrations so low—its presence will have no health consequences in the
Who were Broad’s “health experts”? He didn’t name any, unless you count the Department of Energy, which is better known for promoting nuclear energy than for its medical expertise. Broad wrote that the DOE said that the radiation plumes, in his words, “posed no health hazard.”
There is scientific disagreement about the risks of ionizing radiation. Some scientists hold that there’s no evidence that low-level radiation is harmful (e.g., Health Physics Society, 7/10), or insist, for instance, that the accidental radiation release at Three Mile Island caused little or no harm to humans (NRC Backgrounder, 8/09). But the prevailing scientific view is that there’s no threshold below which radiation exposure is safe—in other words, that all radiation, including the ever-present background radiation, is a potential health risk—and that the risk decreases linearly, so that even decreasing a radiation dose by 99 percent still leaves 1 percent of the risk. According to this “linear, no-threshold” model of radiation risk, a given amount of human radiation exposure will produce the same number of cancers, no matter how many people it is distributed among.
In 2006, the
An Extra! survey of New York Times and
Just 6 percent of total sources were presented as health experts—that is, medical or scientific experts with specialized knowledge of the effects of ionizing radiation on humans—and of these, only two-thirds were actually identified by name. These sources were used to comment on, for instance, comparisons between the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents, the wisdom of taking iodine to ward off thyroid cancer, whether or not Japanese imports posed a threat to the U.S., and the levels of radiation exposure facing Japanese reactor workers and civilians.
With few exceptions, these sources did not play down radiation risks in
In the case of the unnamed experts, identified, for instance, as “health experts,” “scientists” or “studies,” it wasn’t clear that the journalists had actually consulted with sources. For instance, the Times (3/17/11) reported, “Health and nuclear experts emphasize that radiation in the plume will be diluted as it travels and, at worst, would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States, even if hints of it are ultimately detectable.”
So dismissive was the coverage of health concerns that among articles that mentioned radiation and human health issues, just 30 percent (17 of 57) included one or more sources identified or presented as a health experts including unnamed sources—a rate that held constant in both papers.
Reassuring claims were often attributed to sources with no identified expertise in relevant scientific fields, as in a Times article (3/16/11) that reported that “experts say” Japanese officials had “taken precautions” concerning public health that would prevent
Journalists may like to seek simple (and reassuring) answers from “science,” but science is rarely so straightforward. A 1990
Even within scientific circles that acknowledge the harmful effects of low-level radiation, there is a spectrum of views. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
While it might be beyond the abilities of daily journalists to determine who is right in these scientific disagreements, it’s not hard to convey that they exist, a fact that would be hard to glean from corporate media. But the short history of scientific literature about the effects of ionizing radiation on humans demonstrates that the scientists who have urged more caution have had their views vindicated over time.
For decades, distinguished scientists who insisted, contra industry claims, that there was no safe level of radiation exposure suffered professional marginalization for challenging the nuclear establishment. The late nuclear chemist and medical researcher John Gofman first argued against the notion there were safe levels of radiation in the 1960s as the director of the Biomedical Research Division at the DOE’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Gofman’s clashes with the DOE over its notions of safe radiation levels resulted in his being stripped of research funding and his departure from
However, in recent years several major scientific organizations have adopted the views of Gofman and his colleagues. In addition to the NAS, Gofman’s no-threshold model has been adopted by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (2000), the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (2001) and the United States Research Council (an arm of the NAS, 2004), among others.
In reporting on technical scientific issues such as radiation effects, journalists inexpert in the relevant fields of science are wrong to take sides. The best they can do is to inform readers on the range of opinions and the track records and relative independence of the researchers behind them. This is clearly not being done with regard to the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs