Sunday, April 3, 2011

Risk, Reality and Radiation

The situation in Japan wrt the nuclear reactor still not resolved and potentially getting much worse has generated a fair bit of blather in the blogosphere about radiation and the dangers there of.  Comments range from the we're all gonna die to don't worry. Neither extreme being useful.


In a previous life, I had to deal to a certain extent with public reaction to risks of eating something that would make them sick or kill them.  It seemed to me that the more unlikely the risk, the stronger the public reaction to it.  So I did some reading on the social aspects of risk for a class I was teaching and found this article which is a bit dated now but still a good read for those so inclined.

It is now well-established that lay reactions to risk can differ considerably from judgements that are based on scientific probability estimates. No shit, Sherlock. Basically, people fear what they can't see or can't control.  The longer the time frame to consequences, the more fear.  The bigger the consequence, the more fear. The less credibility the source of information, the more fear.

So people fear GMOs, fertilizers and pesticides (has Big Ag/Big Pharma ever lied to you before?).  They fear irradiation of foods because they think it means the foods become radioactive and glow in the dark. They fear BSE, though the risk factor is immeasurably small, because the prions are virtually indestructable and vCJD takes a long time to show up.  They fear any food additive with a name longer than four syllables which they cannot pronounce.  And they fear anything that smacks of radiation, regardless of the amounts..

My cousin's daughter, who is a science and math teacher, posted this website on Facebook a while back which had this awesome chart of radiation exposure on it.  Go to the website for explanations and over 500 comments some of which are quite educational.

Click on the chart for full size or go to the weblink

9 comments:

  1. If this is right, we should now be able to build houses within 100 feet of the Chernobyl reactor, and live in them, and farm those fields.

    Or have I missed something, like the half-life of the radioactive contaminants spread around the Chernobyl site?

    This is a lot more complicated than it appears. Even on the chart. Though the chart is helpful in getting the principle in perspective. Thanks for that.

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  2. man in charge of radiation is like man in charge of his penis. It's the other way around.

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  3. What dana said. Best quote of the week. : )

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  4. I've started posting my manuscript again, and I hope to continue until the entire book has been placed on my blog. This way, at least someone will get to read it.

    http://danamazing.blogspot.com/

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  5. The chart is an interesting way to put perspective on the relative magnitudes. I like the comment about the bananaphone.

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  6. Agree the chart allows you to visualize the various doses so you can see what is meant by some of the numbers relative to "what happens naturally".

    I read in a recent article in The Economist that they are finding plutonium in and around the site. Now THAT is scary stuff. They "don't know where it came from". right. Like were they making bomb grade stuff in there that no one knew about?

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  7. The charts do put things in perspective, to a point. But duration of exposure and cumulative effect aren't covered. It's all one-shot dimensional.

    There's also the matter of unlucky circumstance. Let the right particle of the right isotope type be inhaled by someone very far away who has the right vulnerability and bad things can happen at DNA level. At some later time, that unlucky person turns up with leukemia or cancer of the blood, lungs, bladder or what have you.

    I found some good perspective in an article that includes this:

    "There is no safe level of radiation," said Dr. Jeff Patterson, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a radiation exposure expert, and a practicing family doctor in Madison, Wisconsin. "Every dose of radiation has the potential to cause cancers, and we know that there are other damaging effects of radiation as well. The history of the radiation industry, all the way back [to] the discovery of X-rays . . . is one of understanding that principle."

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  8. I see another comment I have left on a Blogger.com blog has disappeared, I suppose because it included a link. I previewed it and it displayed OK, so I thought maybe it was being accepted. I'll try to stop by tomorrow and do it over.

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  9. This comment was left by SW Anderson but never showed up on the blog, possibly because of a link or possibly because Blogspot does wield things periodically. I removed the link and added the URL to see if that works.

    The charts do put things in perspective, to a point. But duration of exposure and cumulative effect aren't covered. It's all one-shot dimensional.

    There's also the matter of unlucky circumstance. Let the right particle of the right isotope type be inhaled by someone very far away who has the right vulnerability and bad things can happen at DNA level. At some later time, that unlucky person turns up with leukemia or cancer of the blood, lungs, bladder or what have you.

    I found some good perspective in an article (http://environment.about.com/od/nuclearenergywaste/a/Radiation-Safety-Is-Radiation-Ever-Really-Safe.htm) that includes this:

    "There is no safe level of radiation," said Dr. Jeff Patterson, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a radiation exposure expert, and a practicing family doctor in Madison, Wisconsin. "Every dose of radiation has the potential to cause cancers, and we know that there are other damaging effects of radiation as well. The history of the radiation industry, all the way back [to] the discovery of X-rays . . . is one of understanding that principle."

    ReplyDelete