Even though we are constantly exposed to weak doses of both natural and man-made radiation, there is still insufficient data for us to be able to accurately evaluate the effects of such an exposure. Empirical but fairly vague predictions have to be made about doses of the order of hundreds of millisieverts (mSv), and anything smaller than that is even less clear.
Despite the absence of hard data, experts have done their best to evaluate how dangerous weak sources of radiation can be. As a necessary step in the journey to effective radioprotection, a number of different predictive models have been drawn up which attempt to prove a causal link between weak doses and biological effects.
In the field of especially weak effective doses all effects are known as ‘probabilistic’ – which implies that random chance or bad luck plays a dominant role between individuals. In the very great majority of cases this random chance works to our advantage, and our bodies are able to repair most of the damage such weak rays can do. If for whatever reason these reparations cannot take place, then cancers or even genetic mutations may manifest themselves within a few years. However there is no scientific proof that very low doses generate cancers. This is simply an assumption.
Where this level of exposure is concerned, it is the probability and not the severity of risk that increases with the dosage. Where individuals are concerned, it is almost impossible to link the appearance of a cancer with exposure to radiation.
The official model adopted by the ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) describes a simple linear relationship between the probability of an effect (such as the appearance of a cancer) and the dosage involved. On a graph representing the effect as a function of dosage, the relationship is represented by a straight line passing through the origin. The probability therefore grows in proportion to the increase in dose.
The important value to measure is the slope of this line – the constant of proportionality. With data being (fortunately) rare, experts in the field of radioprotection have had to base their assumptions entirely on case studies of those irradiated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The probability of a cancer being induced by radioactivity has thus been estimated at 5% for every additional sievert. Applying these statistics to the current French population of 60 million, natural radioactivity taken in conjunction with medical scans (which average between 1 and 2.5 mSv per year per inhabitant) will cause between 3,000 and 7,500 of the 120,000 deadly cancers diagnosed annually. With no biological label on these cancers to identify the specific points of origin, all calculations involve a certain degree of speculation.
Even with surveys covering millions of people, it is almost impossible to pick out a definite trend caused by weak doses of radioactivity.
The absence of evidence has led many specialists to cast doubt over the reliability of the aforementioned model, believing that it exaggerates the potential dangers. Is there a dose limit below which radiation is no longer toxic? Would the damage be erased by our cells ability to heal themselves?
We are not equal before ionizing radiation. Advanced laboratory techniques such as immunofluorescence confirmed in the field of medical imaging (ie for low doses of a few mSv) that the sensitivity of cells DNA to radiation varied from individual to individual. For example, the DNA radiosensitivity was found more pronounced in patients having a familial risk of breast cancer than in those without this risk identified in their family.
The uncertainty surrounding these weak doses is often ignored by official legislation, which fixes minimum legal exposures as though the values are written in stone. The models in use all involve great simplifications and neglect such crucial factors as the exposure rate and age of the exposed individuals.
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