Some people would have you believe that low level ionising radiation is perfectly safe; this is a sinister and troubling fallacy, says Noel Wauchope.
DENIAL OF THE HEALTH EFFECTS of ionising radiation is the latest of the lies against science.
And it’s the most difficult one to grapple with, as I will explain later. Denial of science is not new — it goes back to Flat Earth and beyond. It has to do with complex psychological issues. These include resentment and jealousy of the respected position of scientists, fear of change and a kind of helplessness in the face of challenging circumstances.
There are other motivations, such as the desire to be famous and important — as being someone “brave enough to oppose the mainstream”. Then there’s the “libertarian” idea ‒ so strongly believed by people such as Rupert Murdoch ‒ that government must not interfere with personal freedom. This idea would include the freedom to promote smoking to young people, to get a job as an asbestos miner, to refuse to vaccinate children against fatal diseases and to accept that low level irradiation of one’s children is okay.
But none of these motivations would get “airplay” ‒ would prevail, if it were not for the money motive, that’s the impetus behind public relations people, consultants, journalists, commentators, TV producers, film-makers, and so on who are paid by think tanks that are fronts for polluting industries and billionaires like the Koch Brothers. And don’t let’s forget the scientists and science media who are paid by governments that are financially beholden to polluting corporations and to the military industrial complex.
There is extensive literature in books and on the Internet about the campaigns of science denial regarding asbestos, tobacco and climate change. These are global campaigns, but Australia is well represented.
The climate sceptic campaign has followed the model of the tobacco lobby.
The 2009 WHO report Tobacco Industry Interference in Tobacco Control summarises the various tactics:
- Public Relations: To mould public opinion, using the media to promote positions favourable to the industry.
- Consultancy programme: To recruit supposedly independent experts critical of tobacco control measures.
- Funding research—including universities: To create doubt about existing evidence of the health effects of tobacco use.
- Creating alliances and front groups: To mobilise farmers, retailers, advertising agencies, the hospitality industry, 'grass roots' and anti-tax groups with a view to influencing legislation.
The pro-tobacco campaign in Australia has been well documented, for example by Ann Davies in Big Tobacco hired public relations firm to lobby. There is a comprehensive outline of Australia’s many tobacco lobbyists at The Tobacco Industry: who are they?
When it comes to the climate change denialists, it is hard to know where to start.
A very recent publication ‘Dealing in Doubt’ provides a 2013 Australia update. After giving the history of climate scepticism in Australia, it states
‘Fast forward to today and Australian denial remains a major force.’
‘Dealing in Doubt’, while covering the global science denialism campaign, pays tribute to Australia’s outstanding climate sceptics. A previous publication, Doubting Australia gives details of these people — Bob Carter, Ian Plimer, Alan Moran, and the denialist front groups, such as The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), Australian Environment Foundation, Australian Climate Science Coalition and the Lavoisier Group.
Independent Australia has covered several facets of climate denialism, as well as the anti-science campaigns against renewable energy — especially wind power.
But neither the “old” nor the “new” media are properly addressing the issue of anti-science about ionising radiation.
This is understandable given that, in Australia, the menace of climate change is apparent and, for now, the menace of ionising radiation is limited. Also apparent is the reality ‒ indeed the urgency ‒ of successful anti-science campaigns against climate change action and the development of renewable energy.
Another reason is confusion, and lack of understanding, about radiation and genetics.
Sadly, Australians have become conditioned to the idea that engineers and nuclear physicists are the experts in these fields. Australians, in general, know little about genetics. As for radiation, most Australians would be hard put to explain the differences between the various types of radiation, of which ionising radiation is only one.
Meanwhile, below the radar, the global anti-science campaign about radiation goes on with particular force as the Fukushima disaster continues.
Plenty of funding is available. The USA’s Department of Energy funds programs worldwide, (including in Australia) to research dodgy science about the safety ‒ even alleged benefits ‒ of low level ionising radiation. Nuclear physicists and others, quite inexpert in this field, pronounce solemnly about non-hazardous nature of low dose radiation. Nuclear proponents from the nuclear lobby, the Breakthrough Institute, contributed funding to the nuclear advertising film ‘Pandora’s Promise, which has just hit the screens in Australian cinemas. Bill Gates, with his nuclear reactor company Terra Power, is prominent among these.
Of all the anti science campaigns, the current one about ionising radiation is the most sinister and troubling in a procession of science denials going back over a century and beyond.
Well, I say sinister, because health the effects of “low level” ionising radiation are hidden, not apparent and may take decades to appear — indeed, not only decades, but perhaps generations.
Low level radiation affects body cells and triggers changes in the genetic code, which may appear in later generations. These effects will “creep up” on the human species if ionising radiation is allowed to spread around the world via nuclear accidents, nuclear bombs and the general operations of the uranium and nuclear industries.
The harmful effects of low level radiation are not clear cut when compared with, for example, the effects of asbestos.
With asbestos, people develop specific asbestos diseases, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. Even tobacco’s harm has been shown, by mice experiments and epidemiological research to assist the development of lung cancer. Even climate change, though much disputed, can be shown through observation of global temperatures, the level of C02 in the atmosphere and through melting glaciers.
Why is it “troubling”?
This is also because the effects of radiation are not clear cut. There’s no “marker”, as there is with mesothelioma and, while cancers are the best known effects, there are others ― heart disease, lowered immunity, birth defects, genomic instability. There are the differences between external and internal exposure to radiation.
Importantly, unlike the case of asbestos and climate science, science’s nuclear “deniers” are, in the words of Charles Perrow in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
'…not a tiny minority but rather are respected members of the scientific community who specialize in radiation effects. Most of these experts no longer contend that there is zero harm in low-level radiation, but rather that the range of uncertainty includes zero: In other words, low-level health effects may exist, but they are too small to measure.’
Unlike asbestos and cigarettes, low level radiation poses a considerable problem to epidemiologists, due to the time lapse, the size of the population needed and the plethora of other disease causes.
For example, in the normal course of events, some 40 per cent of the Fukushima population would get cancer, even if no nuclear accident had occurred. Thus, it is going to take a concerted effort by the many scientists of integrity ‒ doctors, geneticists, epidemiologists, radiation scientists world-wide ‒ to explain the complexities of ionising radiation and health and to get a truly impartial message out. The World Health Organisation, for instance, is going to have to cut itself off from its contracted subservience to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Sadly, asbestos and cigarettes are still wreaking their sickness havoc in Asian countries.
Climate change is en route to work its global havoc.
Ionising radiation is waiting in the wings.
Anti-science seems to be winning.
It is small comfort to reflect on Tom Lehrer's song: ‘We will all go together when we go’.
And it is no comfort at all to ponder the fact that the paid spruikers for anti-science are likely to cop the harm, too.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License