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"An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."
Sir Winston Churchill

9.26.2006

Go Ahead, Soak Up Some Rads

That terrorist dirty bomb may do nothing more than cure what ails us:

So for four days I sat in the damp tunnel absorbing about 400 times what the EPA calls an "action-level dose" of radon gas. There are comfortable chairs and bright lights and I caught up on my reading. One Canadian couple down the hall played cribbage all day while others read or napped. "Last week a couple brought a dog that was all crippled with arthritis," remarked one Alberta wheat farmer. "After a few days that dog was running around like a pup. People say this cure is all in your head but you can't tell us that dog was just pretending he felt better."


THE IDEA THAT SMALL or even sizable doses of radiation can be healthy now has a very firm footing in the theory of "hormesis," whose principal exponent is Professor Edward Calabrese, of the University of Massachusetts. Hormesis says that the body's repair mechanisms work to undo radiation damage we experience every day. After all, every human being on earth is zapped by around 15,000 bullets of ionizing radiation every second. Obviously, our bodies have long learned to deal with these insults.

At extremely high doses -- the kind you get from witnessing an atomic bomb explosion -- radiation does cause cancer at predictable levels. For much smaller doses, however -- the kind we experience from cosmic radiation or X-rays - there has never been any evidence of damaging effects. Instead, government regulators have assumed there is "no safe dose" of radiation, "just to be safe." As a result, we end up fretting over doses of 1 millirem per year -- the amount you would get standing next to a nuclear reactor for a year -- while we regularly absorb anywhere from 250 to 400 millirem from natural sources.

Hormesis theory, on the contrary, argues that bodily defense mechanisms are actually stimulated by low doses of radiation -- just as the immune system is stimulated by small exposures to a virus. A little radiation can actually inoculate you against cancer. This would explain why residents of Colorado, who endure the nation's highest levels of background radiation, have the nation's lowest rates of cancer, while residents of the Mississippi Delta, with the lowest background exposures, have the highest cancer rates in the country.

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