“Good Radiation: Does it Exist?” by Michael J. Dattoli, MD with Virginia Carnahan, CPRC, in Journey Express, Spring 2024, a newsletter published by the Dattoli Cancer Foundation

Michael J. Dattoli, MD
with Virginia Carnahan, CPRC
Journey Express, Spring 2024

Over the past 126 years, since the discovery of radium and polonium by Marie Curie in 1898, mankind has been haunted by the controversy regarding the benefits vs. danger of radiation. In the early 20th Century, a widespread phenomenon known as “radiophobia” or “radiomania” gripped most of the civilized world. This phenomenon exists even today, when otherwise educated people still refuse to accept the beneficial aspects of radiation. The fact that Marie Curie, the preeminent research scientist who devoted her life to understanding radioactivity, died of aplastic anemia, thought to be caused by radiation poisoning (overexposure), contributed to world-wide radiation paranoia.

Much of how we think about radiation emanates from past studies of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, and the death tolls associated with those terrifying events. There is certainly no shortage of interest in the atomic bomb, as is seen by the recent popularity of the film, Oppenheimer, which has served to perpetuate the stigma associated with radiation. In fact, it is the atomic bomb data from Japan which is often cited and used to justify the role of radiation in causing cancers (carcinogenesis) and increased cancer mortality.

But it is important to study the Japanese survivors of the atom bomb, and there exists a great deal of data on this subject. While it is correct high doses of radiation to the entire body, which occurred and affected those survivors “in the city,” may indeed be responsible to some degree for carcinogenesis, the opposite appears to be true with the lower doses of ionizing radiation that were received by those survivors “not in the city.” This beneficial effect associated with low doses of radiation is called “Radiation Hormesis.” There is also compelling scientific and epidemiological data that low-dose radiation upregulates (strengthens) the immune system, and protects the host at the cellular and tissue levels, thereby reducing the risk of carcinogenesis and non-malignant diseases This protection may be long lasting.

To truly understand the impact that the atomic bomb had on survivors who lived “in the city,” it is important to recognize that they were also exposed to other carcinogenic agents, including trauma from non-radioactive insults such as burns, non-radioactive toxins from the explosions themselves, and subsequent fires – all of which contaminated the food, water and air. These environmental stressors unrelated to ionizing radiation increased the risk for carcinogenesis and were responsible for many adverse health effects.

When studying “in the city” and “not in the city” populations in Japan, those “not in the city” who received lower radiation doses enjoyed a longer lifespan and reduced cancer mortality when compared to their nonirradiated peers in Japan, including Okinawans, who are often cited as people with the longest lifespan on earth.1

There is considerable evidence supporting the hypothesis that low-dose radiation reduces the risk of cancers, as well as non-malignant diseases.2 It is important for us to realize that the World Trade Center disaster of 9/11 released significant amounts of toxins into the environment resulting in an increased risk of certain cancers, despite the absence of radiation in that tragedy.3

Some startling evidence has been cited in a number of research papers on the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. For instance, a study looking at the incidence of cancer deaths in 8,600 cleanup workers at the site found that their death rate was 12% lower than the general Russian population. However, fear of radiation had a dramatic impact on the mental health of that population. There were as many as 1,250 suicides and 200,000 abortions due in large part to the psychological terror that ensued with the catastrophic events of Chernobyl.4

Another relevant radiation study involves the city of Taipei, where 10,000 residents were moved from 1982 to 1984 into new apartments that had been constructed with steel bars contaminated by radioactive isotope cobalt-60. After two decades, the residents had received an average of 1.5 cGy (about 10 times the ambient radiation level in Taipei). In the first decade, the cancer mortality rate of these residents had dropped from 50 to 4 per 100,000, while the general population increased from 82 to 108 per 100,000. In the second decade the cancer death rate of the residents remained at 3 per 100,000, and that of the general rose to 153 per 100,000. This particular study emphasizes the beneficial effect (hormesis) of the steady, daily exposure of low-dose radiation, in this case, from the cobalt-60 contaminated steel structure.5

Recently published reports on COVID-19 and its associated acute respiratory syndrome (ARDS), which is typically fatal, identified low-dose radiation delivered by CXR’s and CT scans to rapidly reverse clinical symptoms and facilitate disease resolution. It is thought that this low-dose radiation in these patients boosted systemic immune function while promoting an anti-inflammatory response.6 In regard to cancer diagnosis and monitoring, the fear of low-dose radiation exposure from CT scans and PET scans for initial evaluation and surveillance appears to be unwarranted. Indeed, the nominal amounts of radiation received by patients who undergo those diagnostic techniques may even be beneficial. Meanwhile, in patients receiving therapeutic radiation for cancer treatment, “out-of-field” radiation doses were relatively low and may actually provide protection against future cancers and diseases 7

There is a certain group that by vocation, is knowingly exposed to extremely large radiation doses, apparently without detrimental effects. Astronauts are, in fact, exposed to approximately 250 mGy in a year. There are currently four veteran Apollo 11 Astronauts who are still alive and enjoying life in their 90’s. 8

Another example of the beneficial impact of Radiation Hormesis involves the populations living in the high altitudes of the Hunza Valley of Northern Pakistan. These “Hunza people” are believed to enjoy an average life expectancy of about 100 years (and many believe even longer), whereas the average life expectancy in lower altitudes of Pakistan is only 67 years. The Hunza Pakistanis receive low-doses of radiation from radon exposure and increased background radiation from the sun, both as a result of their higher elevation. The hormesis effect of low-dose ionizing radiation is thought to stimulate the activation of biological repair mechanisms that protect against diseases, and thought to be the reason for the unusually long lifespans of the Hunza people 9

To fully appreciate all of these safety issues, those who consider radiation-induced cancer risks must also acknowledge non-radiation, confounding stressors. In answer to our leading question –– “Good Radiation: Does it exist?” we can assert a definitive, Yes!” In low doses, radiation can certainly inspire beneficial effects on us, in many situations as illustrated by the studies and histories above.

NEWSFLASH: At press time for this paper, news reporter Tom Gillespie published an article in Sky News, entitled “Chernobyl’s mutant wolves appear to have developed resistance to cancer, study finds.” Following the nuclear reactor explosion in 1986, a 1,000 square mile area around the nuclear accident site was evacuated and closed to the public. Now, 35 years later, Dr. Cara Love, an

evoluntionary biologist and ecotoxicologist from Princeton University, has tracked and studied native wolves in the area. She found that these wolves were exposed to 11.28 millirem of radiation every day of their lives – more than 6 times the legal safety human limit.

Her team also found that the wolves had an altered immune system, and “genetic information that seemed resilient to increased cancer risk.” It is thought by researchers that Dr. Love’s work is adding to our ability to identify protective mutations that increase the odds of surviving cancer.

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1 Sotou et al, Genes Environ, 40:26; 2018

2 Doss et al, Dose-Response JI, 10. 562-583, 2012.

3 Lieberman – Cribbin et al, JI Trasl Med, 16 (1) 280, 2018 and Dattoli et al. See also Dattoli et al. Dose-Response, JI 1-3 2020.

4 Andrew C. Revkin, “Nuclear Risk and Fear, from Hiroshima to Fukushima,” New York Times. March 10, 2012.

5 Chen, et al; Dose Response 2006 4 (3) 169-190. Radiation Hormesis: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

6 Calabrese et al, Radiotherapy and Oncology Vol 147:212-216, June 2020.

7 Radiat Environ Biophys. 61(4): 485–504, 2022.

8 Scientific American, July 14, 2021.

9 Iran J. Sci Tech Trans Sci, June 2020.

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