By Craig Piercy, ANS Washington Representative
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
We will never know whether Thomas Aquinas actually pondered this specific question during the Middle Ages, but today the metaphor has shed its religious overtones to be a general warning against engaging in protracted debate on existential issues while more urgent problems fester.
It is also the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the linear no-threshold (LNT) vs. hormesis debate.
As scientific theories go, LNT has always been weak. It relies on extrapolation from high-dose radiation exposure data, where the effects are clear, to predict the risk of annual doses below 10 rem, where there is simply no epidemiological evidence of increased cancer risk in human populations. However, with the weight of 60 years of government policy and our societal tendency to “err on the side of caution” behind it, dethroning the LNT will always be a formidable task.
Meanwhile, the science of radiation hormesis gets more interesting by the day. Just recently, I learned about the abscopal effect–a well-documented medical phenomenon in which treating a cancerous tumor with radiation creates a systemic immune response in the body that attacks other metastases, even those untouched by radiation. An amazing and medically beneficial effect of radiation! Adherents of hormesis need to be careful about how they communicate, however. Yes, there is a growing body of evidence for the benefits of low-dose radiation exposure, but the idea that “a gamma a day keeps the doctor away” can sound a little . . . well . . . crazy, especially if the pitch includes a conspiracy theory about how the Rockefellers quashed data in the 1950s.
Let’s call a truce in the radiation science war. We should all be able to agree that the average person’s cancer

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