Important new science shows even low-level radiation is harmful


There’s been one issue that’s driven my career as a lawyer: Radiation. My first major case — more than two decades ago in southern Mississippi — involved a small, brother-owned company that cleaned out pipe from oil-patch production. It turned out that the dust — known as scale — that the Street brothers and their workers scraped out of those pipes was radioactive and making workers and even family members very ill. Ultimately, at trial, we produced documents showing that Big Oil had known about radiation from oil-field production for decades yet done nothing about it, and we forced Chevron to agree to a settlement.

Since then, I’ve focused extensively on the damaging effects of naturally occurring radioactive material — NORM — that’s been dumped on unsuspecting communities by oil companies, poisoning their workers in the process. As a result, I’ve done battle for years with corporate lawyers who’ve tried to throw the jury off the trail by a tactic that we call “dose dancing.” Simply put, this is an effort to show that the radiation expose that occurred was at too low a dose to cause illness or significant harm.

“Dose dancing” is a load of baloney. My experience as a lawyer has shown me that even exposure to levels of radiation that are considered low can in fact be harmful. And increasingly there is scientific research backing this up. The latest study on this subject is a bombshell:

Even the very lowest levels of radiation are harmful to life, scientists have concluded in the Cambridge Philosophical Society’s journal Biological Reviews. Reporting the results of a wide-ranging analysis of 46 peer-reviewed studies published over the past 40 years, researchers from the University of South Carolina and the University of Paris-Sud found that variation in low-level, natural background radiation was found to have small, but highly statistically significant, negative effects on DNA as well as several measures of health.

 The review is a meta-analysis of studies of locations around the globe that have very high natural background radiation as a result of the minerals in the ground there, including Ramsar, Iran, Mombasa, Kenya, Lodeve, France, and Yangjiang, China. These, and a few other geographic locations with natural background radiation that greatly exceeds normal amounts, have long drawn scientists intent on understanding the effects of radiation on life. Individual studies by themselves, however, have often only shown small effects on small populations from which conclusive statistical conclusions were difficult to draw.

What these researchers learned is alarming indeed:

 The scientists reported significant negative effects in a range of categories, including immunology, physiology, mutation and disease occurrence. The frequency of negative effects was beyond that of random chance.

“There’s been a sentiment in the community that because we don’t see obvious effects in some of these places, or that what we see tends to be small and localized, that maybe there aren’t any negative effects from low levels of radiation,” said Mousseau. “But when you do the meta-analysis, you do see significant negative effects.”

“It also provides evidence that there is no threshold below which there are no effects of radiation,” he added. “A theory that has been batted around a lot over the last couple of decades is the idea that is there a threshold of exposure below which there are no negative consequences. These data provide fairly strong evidence that there is no threshold — radiation effects are measurable as far down as you can go, given the statistical power you have at hand.”

 I cannot understate the importance of this: Long-term exposure to radiation is not safe, even at so-called low levels. This simple fact needs to inform our quest for environmental safety and justice on many levels — whether the issue is as high-profile as the lingering aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, or as down-to-earth as radioactive pipe from the oil patch that’s been used to build a school playground, as we discovered during that Chevron case. All citizens need to learn about the risks, the remedies, and the potential recourse.

To learn more about the new research showing the potential damage of low-level radiation exposure, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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