Royal Society Research: Restatement of Radiation Health Effects

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The Royal Society has published 'A restatement of the natural science evidence base concerning the health effects of low-level ionizing radiation', in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This is a highly significant paper arising from the recent work of Sir John Beddington, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science.

The paper acts as a review of the current literature covering the health effects of low-level radiation, of which much less is known than of medium- and high-level radiation. It reviews studies that cover high profile nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as medical and environmental exposure cases.

Most importantly it provides an impartial and evidenced based assessment of the accumulated body of research and will prove highly valuable in making the case that the actual human risks posed by radiation exposure are often grossly exaggerated or misunderstood.

Director of the South West Nuclear Hub Professor Tom Scott has welcomed the report saying:

“Radiation exposure is frequently assumed to always be dangerous but the evidence collated in this Restatement suggests that this may not always be the case, especially at low levels. All humans are constantly exposed to ionizing radiation, this is what we refer to as ‘background’ exposure. What is often misunderstood is that the natural background flux of radiation can vary quite markedly from geographic place to place, caused most commonly by changes in local rock types. Authorities will rarely consider background radiation levels as harmful and this current restatement paper goes a long way to providing reassurance that this is the exactly correct approach.

Since 40% of people with cancer have radiotherapy as part of their treatment, it can be argued that low-level ionising radiation, used in a well-controlled manner, is able to save vastly more lives in the UK each year".

Lead academic Professor Angela McLean illustrates the size of this increase in risk: "if 100 individuals were each briefly exposed to 100 mSv (millisievert is the measure of radiation dose), then, on average over a lifetime, one of them would be expected to develop a radiation-induced cancer, whereas 42 of them would be expected to develop cancer from other causes. To put 100 mSv in context, the low dose from a CT scan of the whole spine is 10 mSv, while the average dose from natural background radiation in the UK is 2.3 mSv each year".

The work was funded by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. You can read further information and the full report here. In addition the Oxford Martin press release can be found here.

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