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Although most of us are unaware of it, we are literally swimming in sea of radiation. Some of it is natural, like the cosmic rays that bombard our planet from space, trace amounts from elements that occur naturally in the ground, and even microwave radiation from sunspots and solar flares. But increasingly, the radiation we are subjected to comes from man-made sources, ranging from medical X-rays to leakage from appliances to cell phones. While much has been written about man-made radiation, most of us have little understanding of what it is and how it might affect us.
Cancer Cover-Up author Kathleen Deoul recently sat down with internationally recognized energy expert, Milton R. Copulos to get some straight talk about the radiation that surrounds us and what dangers it might pose.
Kathleen Deoul: Milton R. Copulos is with us today to talk about radiation and how it can affect us. Mr. Copulos is the author of over 1,000 articles, scholarly papers and books concerning energy and the environment. He has been an advisor on energy matters to numerous Secretaries of Energy, three Secretaries of Defense and served as a special consultant on energy and strategic materials to the White House in two administrations. He has been a guest lecturer at such prestigious academic institutions as MIT, the Graduate School of Nuclear Engineering at the University of Maryland, Texas A & M University and the Louisiana State University Energy Center. He was also selected as a faculty member for the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies sponsored by Harvard University in Salzburg, Austria.
Milt, to begin with, could you tell us a little about the radiation that surrounds us?
Copulos: That's a good question, Kathleen, because when people hear the word "radiation," the first thing that comes to mind is what is called "ionizing" radiation, the type associated with a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb. Ionizing radiation is powerful enough to knock an electron loose from an atom, thus giving it a positive or negative electrical charge. Although ionizing radiation is powerful, the movies and television have given us a false impression of what radiation is and what dangers it might pose. Part of the reason for this is that fiction seldom makes the distinction between the various types of ionizing radiation and their relative strength.
Kathleen Deoul: Well, what is the difference?
Copulos: To begin with, there are three types of ionizing radiation that are associated with nuclear energy: Alpha, Beta and Gamma radiation.
Kathleen Deoul: OK. What's the difference between them?
Copulos: Well, Kathleen, first there are Alpha rays. Alpha radiation is comprised of a charged particle and is relatively weak. In fact it cannot penetrate the outer layer of the skin, and can be stopped by a piece of paper. But the fact that Alpha radiation is the weakest form doesn't mean that it's harmless. If material that emits Alpha radiation is ingested - taken inside your body - it can pose a significant health risk.
For example, in the 1920s, women who were making luminous watch dials using a paint that contained radium contracted cancer in large numbers. It was discovered that many had the habit of putting the paint brushes in their mouths to bring them to a fine point. What they didn't realize was that when they did this they also swallowed small amounts of the radium-laced paint. Over time, the continual exposure to Alpha rays from the paint they swallowed was what caused their cancers. So, even Alpha rays are not harmless.
Kathleen Deoul: But what about the other types of ionizing radiation?
Copulos: Well next come Beta rays. Beta rays are made up of positively or negatively charged electrons. They are much stronger than Alpha rays. Still, Beta rays can be stopped by a layer of clothing or a relatively thin layer of a metal such as aluminum. If the skin is directly exposed to them, however, unlike Alpha radiation, Beta rays can cause tissue damage.
Kathleen Deoul: But when people think about protection against radiation, they don't generally think of paper or clothing, they think about huge concrete barriers or thick lead containers, so that must be related to Gamma rays.
Copulos: You're absolutely right Kathleen. Gamma rays are the most powerful form of ionizing radiation. Gamma radiation is made of what are called photons. Photons are weightless packets of energy that also comprise the visible light spectrum. They also form the link between atomic particles. In the case of Gamma rays, these photons are very intense. This is what makes Gamma rays so dangerous. Fortunately, while there are natural sources of Gamma radiation, it is most often associated with man-made products so we don't normally encounter them in circumstances that lack the proper protection. This is fortunate because Gamma rays can easily pass through tissue and cause severe damage to the human body. They can also be absorbed by tissue, thereby causing damage to the entire body. It takes several feet of concrete or several inches of lead to stop a Gamma ray.
Kathleen Deoul: Well, that's a relief. But where would we encounter ionizing radiation in our daily activities?
Copulos: Actually, we encounter ionizing radiation more often than you might expect. Indeed, most of us have been exposed to one form of ionizing radiation many times in our lives: X-rays. In fact, X-rays are the largest single source of man-made radiation. They are used for everything from diagnosing disease to treating cancer.
Like Gamma rays, X-rays are made up of photons. Actually, X-rays are very similar to Gamma rays. That's why the precautions taken when you get an X-ray at a hospital are quite similar to the precautions taken when people work around nuclear materials that emit Gamma rays. An important thing to remember about X-rays, and about other forms of radiation for that matter, is that their health effects are dose-related. In other words, the more you are exposed, the more likely some harm may result. Indeed, Paracelus, the founder of modern toxicology, said "The dose makes the poison." No where is this more true than in the case of radiation.
Kathleen Deoul: Is that why people who work around X-ray equipment in hospitals wear film badges?
Copulos: You're exactly right Kathleen. X-rays will expose film - in fact it's that property that makes them useful. Workers in hospitals wear film badges that use this property to measure the amount of radiation the worker has received through leakage from the equipment and so forth. Workers in nuclear facilities wear the same type of badge because the radiation they encounter has the same effect.
Kathleen Deoul: Is a hospital the only place where you'd encounter ionizing radiation?
Copulos: While hospitals are the most common place for exposures to ionizing radiation, they are not the only source. For example, the smoke detector in your home contains Americium, a radioactive element that emits Alpha rays. Radioactive materials can be found in a wide range of consumer products such as digital wristwatches and any product with a luminous dial. They are also used in artificial teeth and some ceramic glazes. Keep in mind, however, that these products emit tiny amounts of radiation, usually Alpha particles, and really don't pose a health hazard unless they are inadvertently ingested. Also, every time you fly in an airplane, you are exposed to cosmic rays that the atmosphere stops well before they reach ground level, and these, too, are a form of ionizing radiation.
Kathleen Deoul: So I shouldn't discard the smoke detectors in my home.
Copulos: Exactly. You stand a far greater risk of injury from a fire that would go undetected if you removed your home's smoke detector than from the tiny amount of radiation it emits.
Kathleen Deoul: Still, doesn't ionizing radiation pose some health risks?
Copulos: Certainly, and I don't mean to minimize the potential for harm. If the dose is sufficient serious health effects can occur. Radiation can damage your body's cells, cause cancer or lead to breakage in DNA strands that in turn can cause birth defects. If you get a very high dose of Gamma radiation, there can be massive tissue damage that will kill you in a few weeks. Even at lower levels of exposure, there can be long-term health consequences.
For example it is estimated by Russian authorities that approximately 4,000 survivors of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster will eventually die from the effects of radiation exposure. Others, however, place the actual figure at 25 times that number.
Kathleen Deoul: Of course few of us are likely to experience the type of radiation that the residents of Chernobyl did.
Copulos: Hopefully, none of us will. But you don't need a nuclear accident to be over-exposed. Too many X-rays or radiation treatments can be a problem if they aren't monitored properly. One real problem in this regard can arise when someone is seeing multiple doctors - even for minor illnesses. Each doctor will have his own file on each patient they see. The trouble is that the only place comprehensive records are likely to exist is at your insurer or HMO. So, each of your physicians may be unaware of X-rays ordered by your other health care providers. While this still might not pose a problem, if multiple radiological studies are ordered, say an upper and lower GI study, a series of chest X-rays and a cardiac catherization, your level of exposure could creep up. The key is to inform your physician of any recent X-ray procedures so he is aware of them.
Kathleen Deoul: It's easy to see how being exposed to a high dose of radiation can be harmful, but what about a series of small to moderate doses over time like the multiple X-ray procedures you describe?
Copulos: Let's look at moderate exposures first. These can occur to individuals as a result of an industrial accident, faulty X-ray equipment or environmental exposure as happened with the observers of above-ground nuclear tests and residents of communities near nuclear fuel facilities where the groundwater became contaminated by radiological materials leaking from storage tanks.
One problem with the health effects of moderate exposures to ionizing radiation is that they take months and often years to manifest. This is called the "latency period." For example in the case of Leukemia, the latency period is at least two years. For solid tumors it is five years. Other health effects can take even longer to show up. Moreover, the effects may not be evident in the individual who is exposed, but rather in their offspring. Radiation can damage DNA and lead to birth defects and even cancer in the exposed individual's children.
Kathleen Deoul: But what about the example you used of someone who has multiple X-rays over an extended period of time.
Copulos: That is what is called "chronic exposure." The Environmental Protection Agency defines chronic exposure as the continuous or intermittent exposure to low levels of radiation over a long period of time. Don't be lulled into complacency by the fact that it involves low levels or can be intermittent. It is still hazardous. Chronic exposure can cause genetic effects, cancer, precancerous lesions, benign tumors, cataracts, skin changes and genetic defects. Indeed, Marie Curie, who along with her husband Pierre discovered Radium eventually succumbed to Leukemia as a consequence of chronic radiation exposure.
Kathleen Deoul: That's pretty scary! But it seems to me that most people simply won't be exposed to either high doses of ionizing radiation or, unless they have a chronic illness, chronic exposure. But while you've been talking about ionizing radiation, isn't there another type?
Copulos: You're right on point Kathleen. The more common form of radiation is the non-ionizing form. As you might expect, its name is derived from the fact that it does not have sufficient energy to knock an electron out of an atom. That does not, however, mean that it is harmless.
Kathleen Deoul: There are different types of ionizing radiation. Are there also different types of non-ionizing radiation?
Copulos: Absolutely, Kathleen. Non-ionizing radiation includes ultraviolet light, visible light, infrared radiation, microwaves, radio and television waves and extremely low frequency waves. We literally swim in a sea of non-ionizing radiation. We encounter it everywhere we go. It is emitted by appliances, computers, power lines, ham radios and, of course, cell phones.
Kathleen Deoul: Could you explain a little about each type?
Copulos: Certainly, Kathleen. Let's begin with Extremely Low Frequency Waves or ELF. These are most commonly encountered in the fields of radiation created by power lines, electrical wiring and electrical equipment.
Kathleen Deoul: Are ELFs dangerous?
Copulos: ELFs have been the center of controversy for decades, especially those associated with power lines. Although the electric utility industry denies any danger, there is clear evidence linking ELF fields associated with power lines with an increase in certain cancers, especially childhood Leukemia. Also, workers who are exposed to ELF fields from power lines have also evidenced an increased cancer incidence. But that's not all.
Kathleen Deoul: What else is there?
Copulos: Well, studies have shown that there is a possible link between use of electric blankets and even watching television and cancer.
Kathleen Deoul: Television! That's incredible. How could that be?
Copulos: Well, a lot of it has to do with proximity and duration. The effects tended to occur in people who sat very close to their TVs for extended periods of time. But the real concern these days is from the Video Display Terminals we all have for our computers. You sit closer to a VDT than you normally would to a TV, and computer screens give off a number of types of radiation, especially ELFs. There is concern that they can cause cancer and birth defects.
Kathleen Deoul: Wow! Isn't true, though, that ELFs are not the only dangerous form of non-ionizing radiation?
Copulos: Absolutely. Perhaps the most commonly understood danger is from ultraviolet light. For years we've been warned to wear sunscreen to block UV rays because they cause cancer. Recently, there's been a great deal of publicity concerning tanning booths and the danger they pose of causing cancer. In fact, there are actually two forms of ultraviolet light, UV A and UV B. UV A is by far the more damaging and that is exactly the type that is put out by the lights in tanning booths. Remember, most skin cancers are the direct result of exposure to ultraviolet rays.
To get a sense of just how great the risk is, if you live in the mid-United States, being in direct sunlight for just half an hour each day is enough to give you a potentially lethal dose of UV rays if you're not protected by sunscreen.
Kathleen Deoul: Just half an hour! That's astounding. It seems an awfully high price to pay for vanity.
Copulos: I agree, Kathleen. Especially when the risk of getting skin cancer is entirely preventable by using sunscreen.
Kathleen Deoul: What about the other sources of ELF non-ionizing radiation we have to be concerned about?
Copulos: There is a new source that may pose a public health problem of epidemic proportions.
Kathleen Deoul: That sounds grim, but I bet I know what you're about to suggest.
Copulos: Cell Phones and cordless phones?
Kathleen Deoul: Exactly. Aren't cell phones and cordless phones a major source of the non-ionizing radiation that is causing more and more health problems?
Copulos: That's right Kathleen. The cell phones that have become an omnipresent element of daily life may be creating a hidden cancer epidemic that will dwarf any public health problem we've encountered to date. Worst of all, the principal victims of this epidemic may be our children.
Next month our interview with Milton Copulos continues and explores the hidden dangers of cell phone radiation. Learn the real facts and how they've been suppressed by an industry that puts profits ahead of people.
Read: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
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