Radio-euphoria rebooted?

12 July 2019

Radiation: Fundamentals, Applications, Risks and Safety by Ilya Obodovskiy, Elsevier

Ilya Obodovskiy’s new book is the most detailed and fundamental survey of the subject of radiation safety that I have ever read.

The author assumes that while none of his readers will ever be exposed to large doses of radiation, all of them, irrespective of gender, age, financial situation, profession and habits, will be exposed to low doses throughout their lives. Therefore, he reasons, if it is not possible to get rid of radiation in small doses, it is necessary to study its effect on humans.

Obodovskiy adopts a broad approach. Addressing the problem of the narrowing of specialisations, which, he says, leads to poor mutual understanding between the different fields of science and industry, the author uses inclusive vocabulary, simultaneously quoting different units of measurement, and collecting information from atomic, molecular and nuclear physics, and biochemistry and biology. I would first, however, like to draw attention to the rather novel section ‘Quantum laws and a living cell’.

Quite a long time after the discovery of X-rays and radioactivity, the public was overwhelmed by “X-ray-mania and radio-euphoria”. But after World War II – and particularly after the Japanese vessel Fukuryū-Maru experienced the radioactive fallout from a thermonuclear explosion at Bikini Atoll – humanity got scared. The resulting radio-phobia determined today’s commonly negative attitudes towards radiation, radiation technologies and nuclear energy. In this book Obodovskiy shows that radio-phobia causes far greater harm to public health and economic development than the radiation itself.

The risks of ionising radiation can only be clarified experimentally. The author is quite right when he declares that medical experiments on human beings are ethically evil. Nevertheless, a large group of people have received small doses. An analysis of the effect of radiation on these groups can offer basic information, and the author asserts that in most cases results show that low-dose irradiation does not affect human health.

It is understandable that the greater part of the book, as for any textbook, is a kind of compilation, however, it does discuss several quite original issues. Here I will point out just one. To my knowledge, Obodovskiy is the first to draw attention to the fact that deep in the seas, oceans and lakes, the radiation background is two to four orders of magnitude lower than elsewhere on Earth. The author posits that one of the reasons for the substantially higher complexity and diversity of living organisms on land could be the higher levels of ionising radiation.

In the last chapter the author gives a detailed comparison of the various sources of danger that threaten people, such as accidents on transport, smoking, alcohol, drugs, fires, chemicals, terror and medical errors. Obodovskiy shows that the direct danger to human health from all nuclear applications in industry, power production, medicine and research is significantly lower than health hazards from every non-nuclear source of danger.

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