Any death or sickness is tragic, but some deaths and sicknesses are more exploitably tragic than others, writes Geoff Russell.
Just before Christmas, Greens spokesperson on nuclear issues, Scott Ludlam, wrote a Guardian opinion piece in which he claimed that while his anti-nuclear views were emotional, they were soundly based in science.
Most of his piece is irrelevant to the phobic fear driving the anti-nuclear movement; but the crux of that fear is revealed in the last part of the article: “One final word on the subject of emotion”.
In that section Ludlam refers to what he calls the radiation refugees of Fukushima and the villagers of Jharkhand near a uranium mine in India, who he says are nursing two generations of deformed children.
All of us have known people whose emotional response to suffering is extreme. You don’t want these people around in an emergency, far better to have people who can keep a clear head and think rationally about the best course of action.
Ludlam doesn’t explain why he thinks these deformed children have anything to do with uranium mining; but a clear head will ask this question and not accept a sloppy explanation.
The list of candidate causes is long and some are quite commonplace. A raised body temperature from any infection at the wrong time during pregnancy will do it; neural tube problems, shrunken limbs, heart valve defects… the full gamut. Swine flu brings a wave of miscarriages and birth defects every time it hits.
For people whose memory of swine flu was of ignorant shock jocks calling it a beat up, it killed 284,000 people globally in its first year with 80 per cent being younger than 65. I don’t have an authoritative global estimate of flu-related birth defects, but we’d be talking thousands annually.
Certainly the World War II atomic bombings showed that a sufficiently large and rapid radiation exposure can also cause birth defects, or more correctly, one quite specific kind of birth defect.
Of some 3,000 pregnant women who survived the bomb blast, 30 gave birth to children with small heads and mild to moderate mental retardation. Those affected received a rapid dose of 300 milliSieverts or more and were in their third trimester.
Remember that number 300… it matters.
The technical name of this birth defect is microcephaly and there were about 1 percent of pregnant women affected by the atomic bomb radiation.
What else can cause microencephaly? Maternal malnutrition. One study of aboriginal children in the late 1990s put the proportion of children with microcephaly at 13 percent at birth.
Outside peer reviewed scientific journals, it’s easy for anybody to claim that this or that birth defect is caused by their favourite villain… gluten, GMO soy, radiation, mobile phone towers, sugar, bacon, artificial colouring, con-trails etc. But science is science, and rumours, scare mongering, conspiracy theories and simple ignorance are something else again.
But I digress …
Epidemiologists know about radiation and see it as just one of a large number of possible causes when investigating a suspected birth defect cluster. What’s an epidemiologist? These are the specialist statisticians who try to work out the causes of health problems.
They often work with medical doctors, but doctors aren’t generally statisticians and therefore often prone to the same kind of statistical naivety as lay people. Treating sick people is very different to tracking down causes.
To trace causes, doctors typically categorise the types of birth defect and then epidemiologists apply statistical tests to see if or how they differ from normal. If you have spikes in particular kinds of defect, you’d check a database of causes; there are 4,194 birth defect causes listed in the international database frequently used by medical teams of epidemiologists and doctors working on such problems; and radiation as a cause of a birth defect is incredibly unlikely.
Outside of a radiotherapy treatment, which could deliver a dose of 1500 milliSieverts, getting a 300 milliSieverts dose is well nigh impossible. 300 milliSieverts is about 10 times higher than an old-technology full body CT-scan and perhaps 6 times higher than members of the public got, for example, from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. So while Chernobyl caused no birth defects, there were some 100,000 panic driven and totally unnecessary abortions … because irrational fear is far more deadly and dangerous than radiation!
So what’s the story at Jharkhand and those deformed children? Radiation has been measured at Jharkhand and is trivial; people in the area will get around 2.5 milliSieverts per year; yes, really, just half a musketeer short of a threesome. This is a little higher than the global average but much, much lower than places like Kerala in Southern India, some parts of which get 70 milliSieverts per year.
At this point, a clear-headed scientist says “Ok, it’s not radiation, so what else might it be“? Making mistakes about causes is rather like jailing the wrong person for murder and leaving the real murderer free to kill again.
Ludlam is proud that he was emotionally moved by the plight of the people of Jharkhand, but sympathy and tears don’t fix problems; and nor does blaming the wrong thing. What good does it do to spend large sums on steps to lower an already harmless radiation level?
If your goal is to bump up nuclear power costs, then it’s a great strategy with a long and successful history. But the villagers would be better off if that money was spent on something useful; perhaps free flu vaccines, perhaps good epidemiological studies to try and find the actual cause(s).
The horrific impact of misplaced panic reached a peak at Fukushima with Ludlam’s so called “radiation refugees”. During the evacuation around the Fukushima meltdowns, people were killed by being thrown out of nursing homes onto buses in the middle of the night because the Government caved in to fear stories.
The IAEA guidelines did not indicate any need for an evacuation (for full details on, and links to these guidelines, see here). But rather than listen to clear scientific advice from experts, the Government panicked and people died.
They died of hypothermia, dehydration, they fell over in buses or their medical conditions deteriorated in the turmoil. People died horrible, wretched deaths that were entirely unnecessary; others committed suicide. Lives have been shattered and billions of dollars wasted on remediation efforts aimed at reducing radiation levels well below levels found naturally in many places on the planet… including, as I’ve mentioned Kerala.
The age standardised cancer rate in Kerala is about half that of Japan, so all that extra radiation hasn’t done them any harm.
Australia has had leaders who reckon that climate change science is “absolute crap”; such people treat science with contempt and reckon they know best. The Japanese had the same kind of problem in Prime Minister Naoto Kan at Fukushima. His emotional irrationality and fear was palpable at the time and his decisions have been described by one radiation expert as “stark raving mad”.
Irrationality comes easily if you are frightened and don’t keep up with the science. Plenty has changed since Linus Pauling claimed radiation from bomb tests would unleash a scourge of malformations and cancer; it didn’t and experts have known why with ever increasing certainty for decades.
All Pauling’s assumptions have long been known to be wrong. We now know, for example, that the apparent stability of DNA is an illusion. Pauling’s generation of genetics experts thought a gene might mutate “once in a hundred thousand generations” and they knew very little that could cause a mutation other than radiation.
Today’s experts know many things that can cause mutations: breathing, walking, running, thinking… simply being alive. The very mechanisms by which your cells generate energy cause DNA damage and mutations. Today’s experts know that every one of your genes will be mutated in perhaps a billion cells of your body during your life time.
Pauling’s generation was like a person who looks at clean city streets and assumed that cities generate no garbage. They didn’t know about DNA repair and they didn’t have the fine-grained tools to see and characterise the mistakes when repair mechanisms fail.
The number of double strand DNA breaks (the most serious form of damage) in a normal cell over the course of a day is about the same as they’d get from a 1500 milliSievert radiotherapy radiation dose. The only reason such massive doses are so effective at killing tumor (and other) cells is that they are delivered in about 5 minutes. They preferentially kill cancer cells because one of cancer’s first tricks is to disable the cellular repair machinery.
Studies in animals show that they have no trouble at all in handling doses of radiation 400 times that of background levels. That’s about 1000 milliSieverts per year. But Ludlam and the anti-nuclear movement show no evidence of understanding modern DNA, cancer and radiation science.
I offered Ludlam a $200 donation to The Greens if he’d read my book (GreenJacked!) explaining the science as best I could in lay language. I got no reply. I sent details to Richard Di Natale when he was elected leader of the Greens; again no reply.
Some numbers are born great and some have greatness thrust upon them by being associated with significant facts; here are two such numbers: 10,000 and 10,012. Every cell in your body, on average, gets about 10,000 pieces of damage per day and if you are exposed to 1000 milliSieverts per year, which is about 400 times the global average, the damage level per cell per day will rise to just 10,012. That is the kind of thing that modern science knows which the early antinuclear campaigners couldn’t and didn’t know.
The world has paid a heavy price for the obsessive belief in obsolete science by the anti-nuclear movement. They’ve been wrong for decades but their successful campaigns have given us three decades of coal, gas, and a rapidly warming planet.
It’s time for rational heads and modern science to prevail.