The Trump administration's dismantling of health and safety regulations continued this week, with an attempt to roll back rules governing radiation exposure.
The Associated Press reported that the Environmental Protection Agency is claiming that “a little radiation may be healthy.” The agency enlisted Edward Calabrese to offer testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The University of Massachusetts toxicologist is known for minimizing the dangers of radioactive chemicals and other substances.
“Trump's EPA is attempting to convince the committee that allowing more radiation will not be harmful by presenting long-rejected theories as mainstream,” Cindy Folkers, a radiation and health-hazard specialist for the organization Beyond Nuclear, said in a written statement. “The agency is ignoring scientific evidence by instead claiming a little radiation is good for you. This is clearly an attempt to save industry money at the expense of women and children's health.”
Common Dreams noted that for many years, the EPA has issued warnings that exposure to any amount of radiation can cause cancer. Now, the agency says regulations should take into account “various threshold models across the exposure range.”
Calabrese, when asked two years ago whether the EPA should relax its rules, predicted: “This would have a positive effect on human health, as well as save billions and billions and billions of dollars.” In 2014, he urged regulators to end “the past deceptions and (amend) the ongoing errors in environmental regulation.”
Calabrese has made the case that human cells are able to withstand exposure to low levels of radiation and other cancer-causing substances. He has gone so far as to claim that some radiation is beneficial.
Not many of the toxicologist's peers agree with him. His opinions are “generally dismissed by the great bulk of scientists,” physicist Jan Beyea told the AP. He warned that looser regulations could spark “increases in chemical and radiation exposures in the workplace, home and outdoor environment, including the vicinity of Superfund sites.”
Women and children have the most to lose if the EPA follows through on its plan, according to Beyond Nuclear. The group wrote that radiactive substances adversely women 50 percent more often than men. Children are 10 percent more at risk than adults.
“Current standards are already not protective enough of women and children, nor is their susceptibility accounted for in the public health costs,” Folkers said. “If the EPA allows even greater exposure, the costs to society could be very high.”
The threat is particularly alarming for people who work at nuclear-energy plants, oil and natural gas facilities, and medical personnel who conduct X-rays and CT scans.
The AP pointed out that “radiation is everywhere, from potassium in bananas to the microwaves popping our popcorn,” adding: “Most of it is benign. But what's of concern is the higher-energy, shorter-wave radiation, like X-rays, that can penetrate and disrupt living cells, sometimes causing cancer.”
The EPA's policy reversal came after the agency admitted in March that “current science suggests there is some cancer risk from any exposure to radiation … even exposures below 100 millisieverts, an amount roughly equivalent to 25 chest X-rays or about 14 CT chest scans.”
The online statement suddenly changed three months later, when the EPA wrote: “According to radiation safety experts, radiation exposures of ... 100 millisieverts usually result in no harmful health effects, because radiation below these levels is a minor contributor to our overall cancer risk.”
However, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements cautions that even low-level exposure increases the odds of getting cancer. The organization reached that conclusion earlier this year, after analyzing 29 public-health studies involving people affected by the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan during World War II, by leaks from the former Soviet Union's nuclear facilities, and by common medical-treatment procedures.
Twenty of the studies confirmed that low doses of radiation lead to higher cancer rates, according to Roy Shore of the Radiation Effects Research Foundation. None of the clinical trials suggested that a small amount of radiation is harmless. “Those who profess that would have to come up with some data,” Shore said. “Certainly, the evidence did not point that way.”
Just one CT scan delivering 10 millisieverts of radioactivity may increase the risk of fatal cancer, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has reported.
“Right now, we spend an enormous effort trying to minimize low doses,” said Brant Ulsch, a California physicist. “Instead, let's spend the resources on minimizing the effect of a really big event.”
Radiation is not the only environmental danger that the administration is failing to take seriously. Trump's appointed officials also have watered down federal guidelines for carbon emissions from motor vehicles and coal plants, which scientists cite as the primary cause of climate change.
The president insists that the regulation rollbacks are necessary to help businesses and spur the economy.