Don’t Frighten the Children

In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences announced what many already knew: there’s no safe dose of ionizing radiation. The late John Goffman had been saying this for years, but the National Academy brought that knowledge right into the mainstream. Why is it then that both ordinary and extraordinary exposures are discussed in terms of what’s safe? There is no “safe!”

Ordinary exposures include things like flying in airplanes, getting through the security measures to get on airplanes, pervasive medical procedures such as CAT scans and dental X-rays, and the routine release of gases from nuclear power plants. Extraordinary exposures include the radioactive products of nuclear fission released from nuclear power plants (most famously Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and most recently in Japan).

The media dutifully trot out experts who the journalist dutifully asks “What about health risks?” To which the experts frequently respond by reassuring the readers, viewers, or listeners that radiation levels are safe or that the risk is confined to highly exposed people.

These experts have either not heard about the position taken by the National Academy of Science or they’re lying. I think they’re lying, even though it’s well intentioned. In fact, I think most of these experts don’t even know they’re lying. They somehow manage to say that radiation exposures are safe even though there is no safe dose: any exposure poses a health risk.

How do they engage in this kind of self-deception? In some cases, it’s simply callous. Experts who are for hire or who are deeply embedded with nuclear technology and industry, like those who said the same kind of things about tobacco, simply don’t use the language the way the rest of us do. But in most, it’s professional training. Experts are trained not to cause panic or alarm. Experts know more than you and me and so have a responsibility not to frighten us.

If we get panicky, we’re hard to handle. There might be social instability. We might question decisions made about what health risk we want to take and then we might want to change the way those decisions are made, against what experts know is best.

“There, there children. You’re perfectly safe. Go back to your fingerpainting or iPhone or Facebook page. Let the grownups take of this.”