The Why Files The Why Files --

Radiation reassessed

Relating to radiation's history
Artificial radiation has been around since 1896, the year that Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays and Henri Becquerel Elderly gentleman with combed white beard and mustachediscovered radioactivity coming from uranium. For many years, X-rays and the various radioactive elements were touted as fountains of health. X-ray were used to photograph bones. Radium was used in innumerable tonics and even hyped as a crop fertilizer. And radon, an invisible, inert radioactive gas, was sold in "radium emanation" inhalers. A 1925 article in the magazine Medical Life claimed that radon treatment had cured at least 27 illnesses, ranging from anemia to sciatica: "It is extremely doubtful if there is any counter-part in the history of therapeutics to the foregoing success with a novel remedy."

Henri Becquerel discovered natural radioactivity from uranium in 1896. Photo: Smithsonian Institute

Among the evidence for radon's health-giving powers was the "increased output of urine" that one author mentioned, following swallowing of "emanation water." This was proof positive that radioactive radon "is capable of stimulating the activity of the human organism...".

Today, attitudes toward this product of uranium decay have changed a teensy-weensy bit. After World War II, there was an epidemic of lung cancer among uranium miners, who breathed lots of radon. And now the Environmental Protection Agency suggests we test our homes for radon, which it calls the second-largest cause of lung cancer -- behind -- you guessed it, coffin nails.)

Man with long, dark beard poses for portraitWilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1896. Photo: NASA

Fear of frying
The image of radiation had already taken a hit in the 1920s, when women who painted luminescent dials on wrist-watches suffered hideous mouth cancer. The early enthusiasm for the mysterious new form of energy began to abate.

The change in attitude gathered steam as doctors noticed that many colleagues who had dabbled in radiation were croaking of cancer. Fear of radiation mushroomed after World War II, not just due to the graphic demonstrations of nuclear power at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also to fears of fallout from atomic-bomb tests. In the 1950s, when the United States and Soviet Union were testing bombs in the open air, parents began to worry that radioactive strontium-90 in fallout would replace calcium in the skeletons of their children. The elements are chemically similar, and the body can mistake strontium for calcium.

 Three scientists hunch over substance, unaware of its dangerous properties.Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radioactivity in the elements polonium and radium. Working in a stable, Marie purified 0.1 gram of radium from several tons of ore. Image: National Library of Medicine

Fallout widespread
In 1963, the U.S. and the Soviet Union halted atmospheric testing due to worries over fallout, after widespread exposure to radiation in fallout. According to a 2002 study by the U.S. National Center for Environmental Health, almost all Americans born since 1951 carry radioactive contamination from aboveground nuclear bombs tests. The report blamed very roughly 11,000 cancer deaths on the fallout.

The fallout, from more than 400 Cold War atmospheric bomb tests, include the radioactive isotopes strontium 90, which bonds to bones, and iodine 131, which causes thyroid cancer. A previous study by the National Cancer Institute estimated that 11,300 to 212,000 thyroid cancers resulted from atmospheric testing. Most thyroid cancers are curable.yellow box labelled with 'Radioactive Earth'

Time to get healthy? Radium could help. Engraving from "The Curative Action of Radium," 1913.

By the 1960s, the expansion of nuclear-electric generation put the issue of how and where to dispose of radioactive waste on the table. Then the near melt-down at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979 convinced the public that what you couldn't see might hurt you. Eventually, says Kenneth Mossman, a health physicist at Arizona State University, "People began to think that any dose is potentially harmful, that a single ionizing event could be all that's necessary to enhance the risk of cancer."

Then, in 1986, Chernobyl blew up, spreading radiation over Europe. Since 9/11, there has been concern that terrorists would set off a "dirty bomb,"and spread radiation over a city, causing fear and chaos.

So even as worldwide production of nuclear electricity continues to rise, so have concerns about low-level radiation -- increasing the need for a resolution to the question of the health effe9cts of low-level radiation.

What is the confusing science on measuring radiation?

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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