Timothy J Jorgensen is an associate professor of radiation medicine and director of the health physics and radiation protection graduate programme at Georgetown University in Washington DC, where he specialises in radiation biology, cancer epidemiology and public health.
His new book, ‘Strange Glow’ is reviewed in the April 2016 issue of E&T. We asked him a few questions about how, by exploring the story of mankind’s thorny relationship with radiation, he hopes a century of history can help us make more informed personal choices about the risks of exposure.
E&T: What is ‘Strange Glow’ about?
TJJ: The subtitle of the book is ‘The Story of Radiation,’ and, yes, radiation is the topic of the book. But the most important word in the subtitle is not ‘radiation,’ it is ‘story’. The book tells the story of the human experience with radiation over the last century and what we have learned from that experience about how radiation affects health. This isn’t a book of tables, graphs, and a lot of mathematics; it’s more entertaining, more intelligible, and more memorable. In this book, we meet key figures in the story of radiation—from pioneering radioactivity researchers Marie and Pierre Curie to the victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident—and we learn about radiation through their eyes.
The book’s title comes from one of these stories. Which one?
The title refers to the story of how x-rays were discovered. X-rays were discovered accidentally by the German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, in 1895. He was doing some experiments with a light-bulb-like device used to study the movement of electrons through free space, called a Crookes tube. While he was doing his experiments, he noticed that a fluorescent screen on the other side of the room produced a strange glow whenever the Crookes tube was turned on, so he thought that some type of rays must have been coming from the tube. When he tried to block the rays with his hand, shockingly, he saw the shadow of the bones in his hand on the glowing screen. He then immediately knew that he had discovered some new mysterious type of ray that could penetrate flesh and other solid materials. Since he didn’t know the nature of these rays at the time, he called them x-rays.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about radiation?
The biggest misconception is that all radiation is equally hazardous. People often lump cell phones, microwave ovens, x-ray machines, radio waves, nuclear power, and nuclear bombs, into one broad category that they call ‘radiation,’ and they label them all as being very dangerous. The reality is that all radiation is not the same, and ‘Strange Glow’ helps people understand the differences.
Why do you think that people fear radiation so much?
I think it’s a combination of two factors. First, they associate radiation with nuclear bombs and cancer, two things that fill most people with dread. Second, you cannot see, smell, or taste most radiation. (Light is the exception, in that it is a type of radiation that is visible.) So people see radiation as mysterious, and it's the mystery surrounding radiation that heightens their fear.
How does ‘Strange Glow’ address this fear of radiation?
Lessening fear is not really the goal of ‘Strange Glow’. The purpose of the book is to better align people’s fears with the true level of risk. Exaggerated perception of risk tends to heighten people’s fear level. When fear of radiation is way out of proportion to the risk level, we sometimes call this ‘radiophobia’. I’m not a fan of the term because it suggests that fear for radiation is not rational, and that there is something wrong with people who fear radiation. That is certainly not the case; there are definitely aspects of radiation that warrant fear. Nevertheless, it is true that many wrongheaded decisions are made for radiophobic reasons.
One of the goals of ‘Strange Glow’ is to help readers make fewer radiophobic decisions. What is an example of what you would consider a radiophobic decision?
Some people refuse to fly because they worry that the radiation they get from the x-ray body scanner is going to give them cancer. In truth, the dose we receive from the scanner is extremely low relative to the background radiation from high altitudes. Most of the radiation dose from a plane travel comes from the flying itself, not from the x-ray scanner. In fact, the time we spend in the scanner results in the same dose that we receive from just 12 seconds of flying at high altitude.
Are mobile phones - or microwave ovens, nuclear power plants, mammograms etc - safe?
There’s no such thing as ‘safe’ or ‘dangerous’ radiation. Rather, there is ‘low risk’ and ‘high risk.’ When people ask whether something is safe, what they are really asking is: “Is the risk level low enough that I shouldn’t be concerned?” That’s a question I can’t answer, because I don’t know their risk tolerance level. Everything has some level of risk. ‘Strange Glow’ aims to characterise these risk levels as accurately and objectively as possible. Then, once people fully understand the level of risk involved, they can decide for themselves whether the risk is acceptable to them, that is to say, ‘safe’.
We’re now five years out from the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident. What have we learned from that experience?
We’ve learned a number if things, but one thing stands out to me. I think the Fukushima experience has made us acutely aware of what I call ‘the problem of the new normal.’ Let me explain. Regulatory limits for radiation doses are typically based on the routine use of radiation in low background environments. Short of a major accident, these very low doses are fairly easy to enforce with regulations. But when an accident happens and radioactivity is released to the environment, it can be impossible to restore the environs to within the extremely low dose limits that were enjoyed prior to the accident. So the dose limits must be raised, if life is ever to return to normal. This is what happened in Fukushima. Authorities were forced to raise the annual dose limit from 1 to 20 mSv, because 1 mSv per year was no longer sustainable. The problem is that increasing the dose limit after the fact appears to the public to be a deception and it, therefore, breeds distrust. This is a significant problem.
So what is the solution?
I feel the best alternative in the wake of a nuclear incident is to educate the public on the actual risk levels, and let each person decide for his or herself whether the risk level is acceptable. Basically, people should be empowered to make their own decisions about their own safety. It’s not necessary that all of them arrive at the same safety conclusion. People can make different decisions, all equally valid, as long as they have the relevant facts at their disposal. I feel this is the best way to deal with “the new normal.” Transparent characterization of the risk level is much better alternative than enforcing an opaque dose limit, if regulatory authorities want to safeguard public health while maintaining public trust.
What do you want readers to bring away from ‘Strange Glow’?
After reading the book, readers should feel confident enough to make their own decisions regarding their personal radiation exposures, and they should come to understand that they are not totally dependent upon ‘experts’ to decide what is best for them. I also hope that they will walk away feeling empowered to engage in the societal debates surrounding the radiation issues that we face today, such as whether we need more or less nuclear power, and whether or not nuclear terrorism poses a significant threat. These are issues that are too important to leave to the scientists and politicians. We all have skin in the game and we all need to become engaged in the decision process. I hope that ‘Strange Glow’ will allow people to separate the truth from the nonsense, so that we don’t have to relearn any of the painful lessons from our 100-year history of living with man-made radiation.