Do you suffer from radiophobia?
The good news is that it can be cured
Have you heard of radiophobia? It’s the fear of radiation, which is a type of energy released by atoms in the form of electromagnetic waves or particles. On the extreme end, people with full-blown radiophobia include health patients who refuse to be X-rayed because they believe that the radiation will kill them, which can even mean refusing basic dental work and radiation treatment for cancer. But more commonly, it is a misplaced fear of everyday inventions like phones, microwaves, and ovens.
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I used to be highly radiophobic. For many years, I feared radiation more than cancer – as if it was cancer. This may sound overblown, but I don’t think I was alone in this fear. It’s why so many of us in the environmental movement were also extremely afraid of nuclear energy.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning no fear of radiation, and 10 meaning extremely afraid, how radiophobic do you think you might be? Remember this number, because we’ll come back to it later.
A myth that lives on
Ratio. This is what we call it on Twitter when a comment on a tweet receives more likes than the original post.
It happened when I commented on a post by City Limits, a newsroom in New York, that stated that no amount of radiation is safe.
The assertion was, of course, a lie, and I called it out as misinformation. Although my comment received more likes than the original post, City Limits didn’t delete or change the post, or issue a correction. But the truth is that life on Earth wouldn’t be possible without radiation.
What is radiation?
Billions of years ago, The Big Bang generated radiation in the form of atoms known as primordial radionuclides, which are now part of the universe. Without radiation, life on Earth would not exist in the present form. Research has found that “natural background radiation was, and likely continues to be, essential for evolution of life on Earth by, e.g., stabilizing the genome and, at the same time, allowing the necessary adaptation of organisms to environmental changes.”
Natural radioactivity was first discovered by French scientist Henri Becquerel in 1896. Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the first artificial radioactive materials in the 1930s, which was groundbreaking for science and led to an explosion of development in industry, agriculture, and medicine.
Radiation is all around us: in the food you eat, and the person who sleeps next to you at night, it’s in all living things and some non-living besides. For a long time, we were not aware that we were surrounded by radiation, or that our bodies have naturally evolved to live with it. Our cells can stimulate DNA repair to counter the impacts of radiation.
Radiation is categorised as that which is completely natural – formed from minerals in the Earth, and human-made radiation. Natural radioactive minerals are found in the ground, soil, water, and our bodies. Background radiation can come from outer space and the sun. Earth’s biggest source of non-ionising radiation is the sun, in the form of visible, infrared, and ultraviolet radiation (UV).
Radionuclides are found in foods to varying degrees, and they mostly pass through our bodies when we ingest those foods. The radioactive form of potassium decays in our bodies, making us all slightly radioactive. Hence, bananas are above-average radioactive, because they naturally contain high levels of potassium.
Although human-made radiation is technically no different to naturally-occurring radiation, it is more frightening to some people. I suppose the feeling comes from the idea that human-made radiation is worse in some way, but that’s not true. Natural disasters like volcanoes erupting can disperse large amounts of radiation, and exposure to naturally-occurring radon can be harmful. Radon isotopes are formed naturally through the radioactive decay of uranium or thorium, which are present in rocks and soil and can attach to particles in the air. Radon is higher in geothermal areas and leads to serious health issues including cancers. Thankfully, we can measure radon and radiation to protect people from these outcomes. It is understandable to fear radiation in these uncontrollable environments, but with the knowledge we now have about how to use and control human-made radiation safely, there's nothing to fear about it.
The term radiophobia was coined in a scientific paper in the 1920s to describe people who were afraid of radio broadcasting. Later, it was expanded to cover people who fear newer technologies that involve human-made ionising radiation, including fear of televisions, microwaves, ovens, light bulbs, loudspeakers, power lines, diagnostic medical applications such as X-rays, mobile phones, and more recently, 5G technology.
Radiophobia is when a person’s anxious response is disproportionate to the quantity of radiation that they are exposed to. One historian notes that when electric lighting was first installed in The White House in 1891, “President Benjamin Harrison and First Lady Caroline Harrison refused to operate the switches because they feared being shocked and left the operation of the electric lights to the domestic staff.”
How do people develop radiophobia?
Let’s consider risk assessment. Evolutionarily speaking, we humans are still primed to fear some things instinctively, like predators including snakes and spiders. But we don’t tend to fear relatively new activities even when they are harmful to us, like smoking or getting into a car, even though they carry high risks. For example, the odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 107 over a lifetime, which is a much higher risk than for most daily activities. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that cigarette and tobacco use kills more Americans each year than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide, and illegal drugs combined, but many people smoke despite knowing the risks.
We live in a world of what are – from an evolutionary perspective – many novel experiences, but our brains haven’t adapted to making complex risk assessments for all of these activities. We have not evolved to instinctively know the relative risks of many things, including air pollution, driving, and climate change.
Even when we do try to make in-depth assessments, it is usually complicated to consider all of the factors involved with any given activity. As such, we can fall prey to things like confirmation bias or reacting emotionally. For example, for many people, the idea of skydiving is terrifying, even though only 1 injury per 1,000 tandem jumps actually makes skydiving safer than driving.
This isn’t a fair comparison, though, because all risk is assessed on a scale of how safe the alternatives are and how necessary the risk is when compared to those alternatives. So, although some people might criticise drivers who get behind the wheel of a car, even with the knowledge of the risk of an accident, this activity of getting from A to B is seen as necessary. It enables us to transport goods, travel great distances, collect our children from school, and so on, while also conserving energy – which is another thing that humans are primed to value. Therefore, the benefits of driving outweigh the risks, which means that we are willing to ignore the risk despite fatalities and accidents being so common. So, while skydiving may be a fun occasional activity, it doesn’t have the benefits for our lifestyles that driving has, so although the risk of skydiving is statistically lower, it feels greater because it is not perceived as necessary.
It’s also easier to overcome a fear when we are exposed to it and don’t experience negative impacts from it. For example, I was afraid of spiders as a child. However, after many years of encountering spiders and not coming to any harm, I have been able to rationally make peace with spiders and overcome my anxiety around them. Equally, the more we undertake an activity, like driving, the more normalised it becomes and the less we fear it. As well, this is why most people who live by nuclear power stations tend to not be afraid of them.
Radiophobia began with frightening new concepts like radio transmissions and electric lighting, but other events have led to increased fear of radiation, such as: nuclear weapons testing and distrust of government around that, the Cold War nuclear arms race, emotional impact from using atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and falsely inflated projections of casualties made after nuclear power accidents.
Pop culture has also played a significant role by capitalising on our fear of radiation through various media including films and shows like The China Syndrome, Godzilla, Threads, and The Simpsons. Many books and films involve an apocalyptic fallout scenario that implies that a nuclear disaster has occurred. Die Wolke is a German novel and film adaptation about a fictional nuclear meltdown that has been studied in German schools for decades and has heavily influenced the German public perception of nuclear energy.
Heavily-funded lobby groups like Greenpeace continue to scare people about radiation, most recently spreading misinformation that releasing wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant will cause mutations in humans. In reality, three scientists explain in detail how “The extra radioactivity to be added from the Fukushima water will make the most minuscule of differences.” They state, “Compared with the radioactivity already present in the Pacific, the planned annual release is a literal drop in the ocean.”
With so much reinforcement that radiation is a high risk and deadly, it’s easy to develop radiophobia, even though the chances of being exposed to a high level of radiation are actually very low. Many of us are afraid of radiation, to varying degrees. How much it scares us tends to be related to how well we understand it.
The dose makes the poison
Let’s be frank: in very high doses, radiation is harmful. But that is true of many things, including drinking too much water, taking too much paracetamol, or eating too many apples. When making any assessment, looking at the quantity, or dose, that we are exposed to is important.
How many millisieverts of radiation cause the human body harm? The dose threshold for acute radiation syndrome is around 1 Sievert, which is equal to 1000 millisieverts (mSv). Studies on populations exposed to radiation, such as atomic bomb survivors or radiotherapy patients, showed a measurable increase in cancer risk at doses above 100 mSv.
Are we likely to receive so much radiation exposure in everyday life? Let’s look at the nuclear power plant meltdown that occurred in Fukushima in Japan in 2011. The natural disaster had tragic consequences, with the earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed killing almost 20,000 people. But, only one person allegedly died from radiation as a result of the Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown, and the cause of that death is still disputed. Radiation levels of 0.06 millisieverts a day were recorded in Fukushima city, 65km northwest of the plant, which was about 60 times higher than normal, but this amount of exposure is not harmful to human health.
Sadly, due to fear of radiation, hundreds of people did die after the meltdown when they panicked during the evacuation process. And a recent report found that those evacuations were largely unnecessary.
What this shows is that an overblown fear of radiation is actually more harmful than radiation itself.
Another example is that in response to the meltdown in Fukushima, Germany decided to shut down their entire nuclear power fleet. Germany once had 17 nuclear power plants, none of which had experienced significant accidents or meltdowns. The result of Germany’s nuclear phase-out is energy rationing, deindustrialisation, a longer dependence on fossil fuels, and the return of deadly air pollution. Research has found that this air pollution is now killing an extra 1,100 people a year. And that’s before we factor in the additional toll from increased global heating through burning more fossil fuels.
Misinformation can have dire consequences.
The good news is that understanding radiation can help to overcome a person’s fear of it. So, what do we need to know?
Understanding exposure to radiation
It’s easy to measure radiation using a device called a Geiger counter. A sievert tells us how much energy has been deposited in a body, but it is a very large unit, so it’s better to use smaller units such as millisieverts. One sievert breaks down to 1,000 millisieverts (mSv), and one millisievert is 1,000 microsieverts.
Let’s apply these measurements to everyday life. Compared with other foods, bananas are above-average radioactive – a single banana exposes you to 0.01 microsieverts of radiation thanks to the potassium inside it. Eating Brazil nuts also exposes you to around 0.01 microsieverts of radiation.
The banana equivalent dose chart is often used to illustrate examples like this. These are miniscule amounts of radiation exposure, that don’t harm anyone.
Meanwhile, global background radiation, which we are exposed to every day, is around 2.4 millisieverts. Near where I live in the South West of England, we have above-average exposure to radiation because the granite rocks below us are rich in naturally-occurring uranium and thorium. People living south of me, in Cornwall, are exposed to 6.9 millisieverts a year, due to minute amounts of radon in the uranium that is present in all earth materials. About 50% of the heat given off by the Earth is generated by the radioactive decay of elements such as uranium and thorium. There are many other areas like this in the world. Also, people living at high elevations, like in Denver in the USA, are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation from space.
None of this radiation exposure harms people in any of these places.
The following are examples of human-made radiation exposure.
Working in a nuclear power plant typically exposes a worker to around 0.18 millisieverts of radiation a year. Taking a transatlantic flight exposes you to around 0.08 mSv. These are still small, unproblematic amounts of radiation that do not pose harm to human health.
On the high end of the scale, a person who smokes 20 cigarettes a day is exposing their lungs to between 0.4 mSv up to a whopping 53 mSv every year due to the polonium in the tobacco they are smoking. The reason these numbers vary so wildly is because scientists aren’t sure how much of this radiation is actually absorbed by a smoker’s lungs. This brings us back to difficulties with making risk assessments, since there’s a high risk involved with smoking: tobacco smoke contains a radioactive chemical element called polonium-210, which emits alpha-radiation, which can seriously damage DNA. When exposed to polonium-210, human skin usually acts as a barrier, but the same cannot be said for when it is inhaled. One study estimated that smoking a pack-and-a-half of cigarettes every day exposes a smoker to a dose of radiation equivalent to 300 chest X-rays a year.
Meanwhile, astronauts are exposed to between 50 to 2,000 millisieverts in space because it is difficult to fully protect them from natural cosmic radiation. On Earth, we are protected from the full impact of solar and cosmic radiation by the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic fields.
Putting radiation into context
Although radiation exposure in huge doses is fatal, the chance of being exposed to such a scenario is extremely rare. Yes, there have been a few well-known nuclear power plant accidents, but in most cases, the consequences of them have been blown out of proportion, and could have been avoided had regulations been in place and knowledge applied like it is today. Also, there are 440 nuclear reactors currently operating in the world, which shows how rare these accidents are. Accidents and health consequences from fossil fuels are far more common and deadly, but because they don’t have the same amount of compelling storytelling behind them, they haven’t permeated public consciousness the way the idea of a radioactive disaster has.
If you think that fear of nuclear power plants is rational, consider this: to generate the same amount of electricity, a coal power plant gives off at least ten times more radiation than a nuclear power plant does. Yet Germany decided to close nuclear plants in favour of mining and burning coal, because of radiophobia.
The alternatives are far more dangerous. Think of the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Or the Jharia coalfield fires, which have been burning underground in India for over 100 years. The first underground fire there was ignited by unknown factors in 1916 and the fires now cover more than 100 square miles of Jharkhand State. Various attempts at putting them out have failed. It is estimated that 37 million tons of coal have been consumed by the fires since their start, the total emissions of which are unknown.
Consider the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure: the collapse of the Banqiao Dam and 61 other dams in Henan, China, under the influence of Typhoon Nina. 26,000 people died in the floods, and an estimated 145,000 people later died from epidemics caused by contamination of the water and from famine. Estimates put the total death toll at more than 220,000 people. Over 10 million people were affected by the disaster.
Hydropower has caused more deaths and evacuations than nuclear power plants ever have.
We need energy to live. Most of us don’t think too much about it, because we are used to being energy-rich, with easy access to lighting, heating, technologies, and appliances that work at the flick of a switch. For a long time, we have relied on fossil fuels to power our lifestyles, but now that we know that they are also harming our health and planet, we have to choose safer alternatives.
How can we assess risk in a better way?
Since the scientific revolution, there has been another way to assess risk, without each of us having to laboriously work out whether or not an activity is safe. This is known as the scientific method.
The scientific method enables us to rely on the consensus of experts in any given field, which means that you and I don’t have to spend decades measuring melting ice caps or monitoring hedgehog numbers to know that climate change is real and that many species are on the decline.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific body made up of hundreds of researchers from around the world. It has a scientific consensus of 99%, which means that there is agreement on the data in the reports the IPCC produces.
In the 2018 1.5C Warming Report, there is a chapter by Working Group III that looks at mitigation methods for bringing down global greenhouse gas emissions. It concludes that a combination of nuclear energy, renewable energy and carbon capture storage (CCS) is needed to combat climate change. Therefore, the scientific consensus is that we need nuclear energy to decarbonise.
The reason wind and solar power are part of the picture, but can’t meet our energy needs alone, is because when it isn’t sunny or windy enough they still need a backup, or baseload, energy source. This currently comes from either fossil fuels or nuclear power. We know that fossil fuels are a big part of the global warming problem, yet the majority of global baseload energy is still reliant on them.
So why isn’t there a race to build as many nuclear reactors as possible? Overcoming radiophobia is no easy feat. Many countries are now investing in nuclear power plants, but for a long time, radiophobia kept governments from taking action, and some, like Germany, Belgium, and Italy, shut down fully operational nuclear power plants out due to radiophobia.
A little radiation is good, actually
Nuclear medicine is a medical speciality that uses radioactive tracers (radiopharmaceuticals) to assess bodily functions and to diagnose and treat disease.
Nuclear medicine keeps us fit and healthy. It is used to determine whether organs are functioning normally, to find out whether the blood supply to the heart is adequate, detect cancers at an early stage, check whether the heart can pump blood adequately, identify abnormal brain lesions (without invasive surgery), assess whether kidneys are functioning normally, and ascertain lung function and bone density, to name just a few examples.
Medical sources are one of the most significant human-made source of radiation, through diagnostic X-rays. If you have a broken or fractured bone, you want to know exactly what’s damaged, and where, so that you can get the correct treatment for it.
Nuclear medicine saves many lives: over 20 million Americans benefit each year from nuclear medicine procedures used to diagnose and treat a wide variety of diseases. It also produces radioactive waste, which is not as scary as it sounds.
As Oxford University Emeritus Professor Wade Allison pointed out when giving evidence to the House of Commons, “The various types of ionising radiation used in health care are similar to those used in nuclear technology, or otherwise found in the environment. The only difference is that the public trusts the medical profession to use these reasonably (and the media do not create alarmist news about such uses).”
It’s good to be a little wary of new technologies, but they have to be assessed using the data we have available, and we need to avoid letting negativity bias creep in. With nuclear power, there is now plenty of data that shows that it’s just as safe as wind and solar power, safer than hydropower, and nowhere near as harmful as fossil fuels.
More good news: by having these discussions about radiation, and helping to combat the misinformation around it, we can help to overcome radiophobia. When you hear a news story about radiation, a good rule of thumb is to ask – what’s the dose rate being discussed compared with levels of ordinary background radiation? And how likely is it that there will be high exposure?
Earlier I asked you to rate how radiophobic you think you are on a scale from 1 to 10. Has the number now changed? Are you rational about radiation, or a nuclear neurotic? Let me know in the comments!
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