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Who is a radiation expert?

We each have varied opinions on subjects like radiation. Some of our opinions are expert opinions based on years of experience and education. Some are general opinions based on what we’ve been told or seen. Others are very loose opinions and we can’t remember why we even hold those opinions.
A letter-to-the-editor of a newspaper in the southeastern United States was recently brought to my attention. Since it contains many statements that are outright incorrect and some that are simply to an attempt to strike fear in the hearts of those who read it, I thought I’d share some of it here.
First though, an important note: The letter was written by an MD – yes, a medical doctor. The point being that while we might trust that a medical doctor should know what they’re talking about when it comes to medicine, this medical doctor does not know very much about radiation. I had to ask myself, why I should think that he or she would? Why would I expect them to be a radiation expert just because they are an MD [(This person was an M.D. in obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN)]?
When someone states their credentials, is it nice to know, but remember to ask yourself – does that make them an expert on the topic about which they are speaking? Is an OB/GYN doctor a radiation expert any more than a radiation specialist would be an expert in OB/GYN? I don’t think so.I hope you would ask yourself what credentials I had to discuss OB/GYN if I started doing so on this blog.
Let’s take a closer look at this letter to the editor.
The author of the letter suggests that “zero is the only acceptable risk regarding a radioactive substance.” This comment is perfectly understandable if there is no benefit to be gained although achieving zero is not possible. We are exposed to radiation every day of our lives. We have radioactivity in us, there is radioactivity in soil (where we find the uranium and other minerals) and building materials, and we are exposed to cosmic radiation. Foods we eat contain natural radioactivity including uranium. So does the water we drink. In addition to this, medical imaging exams expose us to radiation to diagnose and treat disease in which case we have, with our physicians, determined that any risk from the radiation is outweighed by the benefit of the exam.
The author suggests that had people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki thought we were simply dropping a regular bomb on them [versus an atomic bomb], they would not have felt overly threatened. This is absurd. There may, in fact, be different forms of anxiety when someone is told that a “regular” bomb versus an atomic bomb is going to be detonated; however, both forms would leave a person, city, and country feeling threatened. It is also of interest to note that more Japanese people were killed by a fire-bombing raid on Tokyo in May of 1945 than in the atomic bombings; war is hell, regardless of the weapons used.
The author states “There are too many unknowns concerning radiation exposure.” Radiation is the most studied toxic substance known to humans. At very high doses, like some received during the atomic bombings, cancer and other diseases can be caused. At low doses, like the natural background dose we receive annually or from living near a nuclear power plant, study after study has shown no health effects. In fact, human exposure standards for uranium are based on its chemical toxicity, not radioactivity because it is a heavy metal so, taken internally, can have health effects on our organs.
As I’ve stated before, and is worth repeating, if the topic is of great interest to you, dig deeper to make sure you have the whole story. An expert is only an expert in their specific field of study. Beyond that, they are merely stating opinions.