WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is quietly moving to weaken U.S. radiation regulations, turning to scientific outliers who argue that a bit of radiation damage is actually good for you — like a little bit of sunlight.
The government’s current, decades-old guidance says that any exposure to harmful radiation is a cancer risk. And critics say the proposed change could lead to higher levels of exposure for workers at nuclear installations and oil and gas drilling sites, medical workers doing X-rays and CT scans, people living next to Superfund sites and any members of the public who one day might find themselves exposed to a radiation release.
The Trump administration already has targeted a range of other regulations on toxins and pollutants, including coal power plant emissions and car exhaust, that it sees as costly and burdensome for businesses. Supporters of the EPA’s new proposal argue the government’s current no-tolerance rule for radiation damage forces unnecessary spending for handling exposure in accidents, at nuclear plants, in medical centers and at other sites.
“This would have a positive effect on human health as well as save billions and billions and billions of dollars,” said Edward Calabrese, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts who is to be the lead witness at a congressional hearing Wednesday on EPA’s proposal. “The regulatory agencies are kind of a cult, but they don’t know they’re part of a cult.”
Calabrese, who made those remarks in a 2016 interview with a California nonprofit, was quoted by EPA in its announcement of the proposed rule in April. He declined repeated requests for an interview with The Associated Press. The EPA declined to make an official with its radiation-protection program available.
The regulation change is now out for public comment, with no specific date for adoption. Radiation is everywhere, from potassium in bananas to the microwaves popping our popcorn. Most of it is benign. But what’s of concern is the higher-energy, shorter-wave radiation, like X-rays, that can penetrate and disrupt living cells, sometimes causing cancer.
As recently as this March, the EPA’s online guidelines for radiation effects advised: “Current science suggests there is some cancer risk from any exposure to radiation.”
“Even exposures below 100 millisieverts” – an amount roughly equivalent to 25 chest X-rays or about 14 CT chest scans – “slightly increase the risk of getting cancer in the future,” the agency’s guidance said.
But that online guidance – separate from the rule-change proposal – was edited in July to add a section emphasizing the low individual odds of cancer: “According to radiation safety experts, radiation exposures of …100 millisieverts usually result in no harmful health effects, because radiation below these levels is a minor contributor to our overall cancer risk,” the revised policy says.
Calabrese and his supporters argue that smaller exposures of cell-damaging radiation and other carcinogens can serve as stressors that activate the body’s repair mechanisms and can make people healthier. They compare it to physical exercise or sunlight.