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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.4 (2001) 543-555

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The Origin of Radiophobias

Michael Myslobodsky *

Do you remember the day when a radical religious sect in the United States seized the nuclear power plant at Old Point in Virginia? Their goal was to manufacture weapons-grade plutonium in a nuclear reactor for use by Arab terrorists and some rogue states. They threatened to blow up the plant, thereby wiping out the whole population of the state.The terrorists failed, as all bad guys ultimately should. But the public learned that some jerk's ability to annihilate the planet with an atomic weapon is chillingly simple.You missed this one? All right, the seizure of the power plant never happened.The scenario was lifted from a 1996 thriller, Cause of Death, by Patricia Cornwell, which was among other items carefully selected for display last Halloween by Crown Books, and it makes a compelling point about how the public gets its legitimate dose of a memorable scare.

What is that silent hysteria on a massive scale that afflicts the majority of an otherwise healthy population? Its name is radiophobia, and it affects our mental health, radiation protection standards, the price of gasoline we pump into our cars, and our energy policy. Its signs are everywhere.

Radiophobia first caught my attention in Stockholm, where I was attending a symposium a little more than a year after the uncontrolled reaction of the graphite-moderated reactor at Chernobyl in April 1986.The participants were exceptionally pampered and well fed by the hosts, save for the shortage of green vegetables on the tables. Such a diet is not at all surprising in the North of [End Page 543] Europe, but Americans known to be preoccupied with their bowel functions might have found such a diet mildly uncomfortable. One of the speakers opened his talk with a facetious comment attributing the scarcity of the greens to the gracious efforts of the hosts to protect the guests from excessive radiation. The joke went wrong.The speaker was promptly rebuffed for being insensitive and inconsiderate of the anguish of the host nation, and everyone was embarrassed. The sympathy was overwhelmingly on the side of the hosts, since the health of the Swedes seemed to be put at risk.This sentiment may well have been particularly strong in Sweden, where group risks tend to receive higher ranking than personal or family risks (Sjöberg 2000) and where the tradition of high-level risk legislation is known to be the strictest in Europe. Aside from the question of sensitivity and manners of guests and hosts alike, one might ask whether the dose-rate contributed by Chernobyl was so out of the ordinary. Was there a real biological danger for the population? When does a legitimate health concern end and a hysterical overreaction--frank radiophobia--begin?

We are constantly barraged by ionizing radiation. A jet passenger flying at 10,000m altitude to Greece will be exposed to a dose twice higher than the yearly allowance of a resident near a nuclear plant. A frequent flier with about 200 hours a year (e.g., 15 trips to the Middle East) would exceed a dose of 1mSv a year, 1 depending upon the altitude and the route of flights. An executive who flies a private jet as well as the pilot may reach up to 6 mSv y-1. Such annual doses are only a few times that of the natural background. In the above example of exposure, the risk is identical for a passenger and for a pilot. Yet the former is considered by the radiophobic to tread dangerously, much as hang-gliders, car racers, skiers, or smokers do, whereas the latter is exposed on the job. According to current thinking, the risk for cancer from such radiation exposure remains for the rest of life.Thus, radiation protection of passengers is not regulated, while the European Union classifies anyone who is liable to receive an effective dose of 1mSv y-1 as occupationally exposed and therefore subject to regulatory control. Although a slightly higher relative...


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