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Is Radiation to Blame?

This is a continuation on the theme from the blog “Suggested or Proven – Is Radiation to Blame? I think the topic is worthy of more than one blog for a better understanding of radiation and its effects.
Over the years, I have had back problems, muscle spasms actually. I can remember one time reaching back across the bed to get a sock and, ‘pop’, out went my back; I was stuck. When the spasms occurred, I could barely move.
Spine x rays showed nothing more than routine aging (although that isn’t what I wanted to hear) so it was purely muscle spasm. When my doctor asked what happened, I replied “I was reaching for a sock.”
The doctor was unimpressed and asked again, “What have you been doing over the past few weeks to cause this?”
What? It wasn’t the sock?
I really had to think. “Well, there was the moving and stacking of a couple cords of wood. Oh and helping to shovel the foot of snow off the roof of the house (one of the pleasures of living in Minnesota).
Hmm…what else…oh, there was the moving of some lead at work on a shielding project and I thought I was strong enough to help.”
[Imagine the doctor shaking her head and rolling her eyes!] “Gee, do you think those contributed?”
Okay, sure, they might have. But, I did like many of us do – I associated the item that happened most recently (reaching for the sock) and blamed it for my back spasm.
When we ask “What/Who did this or why did this happen,” we often think of things close in distance or close in time.
Some health effects do have their causes in the short term – getting the flu is likely from being in close contact with someone who has the flu or picking up flu germs within the past few weeks.  Some health effects have their causes in the longer term – blocked arteries may be the result of years of eating foods high in saturated fats.
The health effect we most often associate with radiation exposure, cancer, falls into the latter category; it occurs years after the exposure occurred if the exposure was high enough. The time between the exposure and when the effect appears is called the latent period.
That latent period for radiation-caused cancer is at least 10 years for tumors or 2 years for leukemia. In fact, it can extend beyond your life span for tumors (meaning you would outlive any damage appearing as a cancer) or more than 30 years for leukemia. Some of the data from the Chernobyl nuclear accident indicates a shorter latent period for thyroid cancer in children after radioactive iodine exposure – closer to 5 years.
The point is, we want an answer, we want it now, and we assume the answer is buried somewhere in the last 2-3 weeks when it often is not. With many diseases, we need to think in years, decades actually, and we need to think in terms of the level of exposure to the toxic agent. In the case of radiation exposure, the questions are: what radiation exposure might I have gotten 10 years ago and how much exposure was it? That will lead to a better answer to “Is radiation to blame?”