We should have less fear of radiation, says Imperial researcher

People’s fear of radiation is sometimes out of proportion to the risks it poses, said an Imperial expert at a public healthcare event.

Professor Gerry Thomas, Chair in Molecular Pathology at Imperial College London and the Chernobyl Tissue bank, has led research looking at the health impacts of radiation. She was speaking at the Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre (AHSC) seminar series earlier this month at St Mary’s Hospital, part of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

“We have a problem with radiation and we are made to fear it. This is partly due to factors such as the use of atomic weapons during combat and exposure after nuclear accidents. However, radiation plays many important and beneficial roles such as medical diagnostics and treatments. The effect of radiation on public health is small compared to other risks such as smoking. There is a real need to dismantle some of the myths and misconceptions around radiation to increase understanding, as well as policymakers having access to evidence-based science when making decisions on matters such as energy policy.”

Radiation has a wide variety of uses in medicine, such as in cancer treatments and diagnostic x-rays. It is also found in foods such as bananas and brazil nuts. Every year, we are exposed to a dose of radiation of 2.4 millisieverts (which is a measure that adds our exposure from different types of radiation). However, many scientists believe that there is a public misunderstanding of the real health effects of exposure to low doses of radiation, particularly when that exposure is a result of an accident at a nuclear power plant.

Professor Thomas outlined the relationship between dose of radiation and the effect on health. Pointing to previous research, Professor Thomas described how in a group of 100 people exposed to low levels of radiation (100 millisieverts), evidence suggests one will get a radiation-induced cancer, but forty-two will get cancer caused by other factors such as lifestyle.

Professor Thomas also outlined her work looking at the health effects on those who were children at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and living in the contaminated areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia who subsequently developed thyroid cancer. Twenty eight people died as a result of being exposed to very high levels of radiation and there were 15 deaths from thyroid cancer in 25 years. The team found no increase in other cancer cases and no effect on fertility or infant mortality.

Professor Thomas was joined in the seminar by Professor Paul Elliott, Chair in Epidemiology and Public Health Medicine at Imperial College London, who talked about his work on the possible long-term health effects of mobile phone use.

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