Radiation May Not Kill You, but Fear of It Might

David Ropeik: Our dread of nuclear accidents exceeds the facts
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 22, 2013 12:13 PM CDT
Radiation May Not Kill You, but Fear of It Might
In this Nov. 12, 2011, file photo, workers in protective suits wait to enter the emergency operation center at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station in Japan.   (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, Pool, File)

Seems like there's a new story every week about a new radioactive leak or accident at Japan's shuttered Fukushima nuclear plant. The headlines may sound terrifying, but David Ropeik in the New York Times points out that scientists have said repeatedly that the radiation has been relatively harmless so far. Generally speaking, the same holds true for Chernobyl. Even the effects on victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been less severe than predicted over time. Widespread genetic mutations? A huge spike in cancer deaths? They never materialized.

"The robust evidence that ionizing radiation is a relatively low health risk dramatically contradicts common fears," writes Ropeik. And that's the rub: Those "common fears" carry risks of their own, including rising levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among people who suspect they were affected. The government—specifically the EPA—can help by educating the public about "the actual biological effects of radiation," writes Ropeik. Otherwise, "we will continue to face the threat of deep historic nuclear fears that simply don’t match the facts." Click for his full column. (Read more radiation stories.)

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