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Is Fear Of Radiation Justified?

April 25, 2011

Why are people so afraid of radiation? Is it the unseen nature of its presence? The long-term possible damage to our DNA? And what about the radiation we are exposed to every single day caused by cell phones, solar flares, and medical equipment?

After nuclear power plant accidents in Russia, Japan and the US, the fear of radiation contamination can cause more panic and confusion than the actual radiation.

Despite the daily dangers we all face, such as disease, cancer, auto accidents and just plain old bad luck that claim millions of humans every year, those things do not inspire such dread.

Herve Chneiweiss, a neurologist at the Centre for Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Universite Paris Descartes, explained to the AFP news agency, “Anything that can penetrate inside our bodies fills us with apprehension, and triggers an ancestral, or ancient, fear.”

Radiation, especially when we can understand that it is coming, apparently unabated, from a nuclear power source, that angst is magnified even more.

“We are all fearful of invisible things that have invisible effects. Even the word itself almost invokes fear as soon as it is pronounced,” said Etienne Klein, a physicist at the French atomic energy commission and a professor of philosophy at the Ecole Centrale de Paris.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that human behavior is deeply rooted in natural selection and we need to adapt to our environment. Radiation fears also tap into the apprehension of our ancestors about contagious disease.

John Tooby, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has written extensively on the evolutionary origins of emotion explains that early man could not see the viruses or bacteria that was causing so much devastation yet they certainly feared the diseases they brought as well as what they thought was causing them at the time.

“People treat nuclear contamination as if it were disease contamination — emotionally, they think about mere exposure and not dose. Although we live bathed in a sea of background radiation, people treat any increment as a dire risk,” Tooby told AFP’s Marlowe Hood via email.

“Radiation increments from Fukushima create incipient panics here, even though it is orders of magnitude less than they might have experienced by moving to higher altitude,” he added.

While still a student, Tooby used a Geiger counter to show a custodian that his household Chinaware was more radioactive than other objects nearby. “His wife insisted on throwing it all out, even though I told them it was harmless,” he recalled.

We associate radiation dangers we have read about, real or not, with current events and the unpredictable nature of what appear to be overwhelming conditions at the site of a disaster such as Fukushima.

An explosion in 1986 of Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor in Ukraine spewed radioactive dust and ash over more than 77,000 square miles, eventually reaching as far north as Scotland and as far west as Ireland.

An immediate area around the site suffered serious long-term damage as did many of the hundreds of thousands of “liquidators”, clean-up crews conscripted by the Soviet regime then in power, to put out the fire and clean up the deadly mess in and around the disaster site.

That uncertainty of both the long-term damages and the health costs continues to fuel alarm, experts say.

“How was one [living in France] supposed to know whether or not to worry about a radioactive cloud?” asked Francois Taddei, a molecular geneticist at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM). “For Chernobyl, we were told that there was nothing, which in fact there was. How does one rebuild confidence?”

“One had the impression — justified or not — that the authorities were lying, and so everything they said was cast into doubt,” said Klein.

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