Jeff McMahon | May 29, 2012 | Forbes | Shared as an educational material
When fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster began appearing last Spring in U.S. air, rainwater, drinking water, and milk, many U.S. media outlets ignored the story.
It was a difficult story to cover. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was releasing raw data erratically, sometimes late on Friday afternoons, and reporters either had to possess radiation expertise or take a crash course in picocuries, millisieverts, MCLs and DILs.
It was much easier for reporters to accept reassurances from government officials that the fallout drifting across the U.S. was “well below levels of public concern.” And it was much easier to heed pleas from government and industry that we not alarm the public.
But experts in low-dose radiation will tell you scientists know too little about the effects of low-dose radiation for public officials to make such sweeping statements, and most scientists believe that across large populations, more exposure means more cancer:
“There is scientific consensus on a prevailing hypothesis that, down to near-zero levels, the occurrence of future cancer is proportional to the dose of radiation received,” writes Gordon Thompson, executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, in the May/June issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
This hypothesis is called the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) Hypothesis. It implies that no additional dose of radiation, however small, can be described as absolutely safe.
Government and Industry officials downplay that implication, and reporters have been complicit in hiding it from the public. Thompson suggests this policy approach may be patronizing, obsolete, and a threat to public faith in science:
“Public fear does not provide a reason to hide the logical implications of the LNT hypothesis. An attempt by experts to hide these implications is likely to be counterproductive. The truth would probably be revealed eventually, leading to diminished public faith in the relevant experts and in science in general. Ultimately, public fear could be exacerbated. Also, when experts consider public fear, they should account for contemporary views on individual agency. In past years, well-meaning doctors would often withhold a diagnosis of cancer to avoid alarming a patient. Now, such behavior is generally regarded as patronizing and obsolete.”
via “Unmasking the Truth,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
If this is true for public officials, it’s at least as true for reporters, who should act as watchdogs, scrutinizing the actions and statements of public officials.
When fallout from Fukushima reached the U.S. last year, few reporters did so.
When radioactive strontium appeared in Hilo, Hawaii milk, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the radiation was “no cause for concern.” That statement is at odds with scientific consensus.
Reporter William Cole relied on assurances from his expert, Lynne Nakasone, administrator of Hawaii’s Environmental Health Services Division, who told him, “There’s no question the milk is safe.”
Of course, there is a question whether the milk was safe.
Why would public officials downplay risk to the public? Because radioactive strontium can put a damper on milk sales.
In The Bulletin, Gordon writes that political pressure from economic interests too often influences policy approaches to low-dose radiation:
“A question for professional bodies is whether, in a politically pressurized environment, they will not only speak about the uncertainties of the LNT hypothesis, but will also acknowledge its logical implication: Even very low-dose radiation can be expected to sicken and kill a number of people over time.”
That’s a good question for professional bodies of reporters, too. If even very low-dose radiation can sicken and kill people, should we hide exposures from the public?