In January 2012, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released their Preliminary Data for the Leading Causes of Death in the United States. Their report showed that cancer is ranked at number two once again. As cancer rates remain high, it becomes increasingly important to understand what kinds of carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, are around us, and how much they impact us. The known carcinogens that are well documented in terms of cancer death rates include smoking, alcohol consumption, and poor nutrition or insufficient physical exercise.
However, not all known causes of cancer such as ionizing radiation are covered to this extent. How big of a role does ionizing radiation play in cancer deaths? Is it even worth noticing? First, in order to understand why ionizing radiation leads to cancer, an important distinction must be made between ionizing and nonionizing radiation. “Radiation is ionizing if the energy of the radiation suffices to remove an electron from an atom to create an ion. Conversely, if the energy does not suffice to create ions it is called nonionizing” (Wikman, 2012). On simpler note, ionizing radiation is more powerful.
Its effects are devastating as well. “The biological effects of ionizing radiation are generally well known. Ionizing radiation can cause cell death and acute harm to organs if sufficient numbers of cells are damaged. Another type of damage occurs in cells that are modified. This may lead to inheritable genetic changes and the development of cancer, which may manifest itself decades after exposure” (Wikman, 2012). Another source that conveys this same idea said, “Biological damage caused by exposure to ionizing ranges from mild tissue burns to cancer, genetic damage, and ultimately, death” (Lerner, 2008).
Since ionizing radiation has the confirmed ability to cause cancer, the question goes back to how big a role it plays. Natural sources of ionizing radiation are found in cosmic rays, and radioactive substances in the Earth’s crust. Human activities such as radon gas from mining, combustion of fossil fuels, and radioactive residues from nuclear weapons tests (1945-1980), the Chernobyl accident, the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the day-to-day operation of nuclear power plants contribute a small fraction of the global average exposure to ionizing radiation; The largest human source stems from medical procedures.
These medical procedures include X-rays and radiation therapy. As one of the largest human sources of ionizing radiation, radiation therapy uses ionizing radiation to, “kill cancer cells by damaging their DNA. This blocks their ability to grow and increase in number” (Frey, 2006). Though this technique kills off numerous cancer cells and dramatically decreases the size of tumors, it can still kill normal cells as well. This leads to the unfortunate truth that the very radiation that can cure a cancer is the same radiation capable of causing one.
“The effect of X-rays killing rapidly dividing cells also created cancer causing mutations in genes. ” Thus, a second cancer can be developed. According to the National Cancer Institute, one of the side effects bulleted read that, “Rarely, a second cancer caused by radiation exposure” (2010). They then follow up by stating, “Second cancers that develop after radiation therapy depend on the part of the body that was treated. For example, girls treated with radiation to the chest for Hodgkin lymphoma have an increased risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
In general, the lifetime risk of a second cancer is highest in people treated for cancer as children or adolescents” (2010). The information provided is unclear. The National Cancer Institute had said that the risk is high in those treated for cancer “as children or adolescents”, however, they had previously stated the risk as “rare. ” Another contribution to the global average ionizing radiation exposure are the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However small, incidents such as those are still relevant in connecting it with nuclear power plants.
Electricity starts with a spinning turbine–or rather, it ends there. Nuclear energy is made within a nuclear power plant inside a structure called a nuclear reactor. Inside the reactor, radiation is produced from impinging fuel atoms (like uranium for instance) disintegrating one another. The disintegration sets off other disintegrations that lead to a flow of energy. The energy comes off as heat, which boils water that produces steam that spins turbines that turn electric generators. This whole process is a steady chain reaction of nuclear fission. A nuclear, bomb, is not a controlled reaction.
Whether the impact these reactions have on humans parallel each other is still grey matter. “Past nuclear disasters shed some light only on the potential prospects. There is no question that those exposed to radioactive iodine as children- for example, through the Chernobyl disaster- are almost guaranteed to develop thyroid cancer later in life. Meanwhile, a study of atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that has been ongoing since 1947 found increased risks for leukemia and lung and skin cancer, among other cancers, particularly for those exposed to more than 100 milliSieverts of radiation.
The greater the exposure, the greater the risk of developing cancer became. Still, of the 200,000 Japanese survivors studied-some of whom were babies or young children at the time of the bombings-more than 40 percent remain alive today” (Biello, 2012). Not only do those results contradict within the bounds of nuclear disasters, but they also contradict within the topic of nuclear power facilities. “An NCI study published in 1991 concluded there was no general increased risk of death from cancer for people living in more than 100 U. S. counties containing, or closely adjacent to, nuclear facilities.
However, a British survey of cancer mortality in areas around nuclear facilities in the United Kingdom reported an increase in deaths from childhood leukemia near some of the facilities. Other smaller surveys of cancer deaths around nuclear facilities in both countries yielded conflicting results” (Oberleitner, 2006). The late physicist Bernard Cohen, professor at The University of Pittsburgh didn’t seem to think the risk of nuclear power was threatening cancer rates at all.
According to Cohen, 15,000 particles particles of radiation is what the human body is struck with every second from natural sources. Take an average X-ray and 100 billion particles will strike. It seems dangerous, but in reality, the probability for a radiation particle entering the human body to cause cancer is one in 30 million billion. Cohen does admit, however, that the the routine releases can reduce our life expectancy by fifteen minutes. But if every minute counts, consider that the burning of other electricity sources such as oil,fuel, or gas can cost humans anywhere from 3-40 days.
Though Cohen’s statistics validate his argument that nuclear energy risks are inconsequential, it still doesn’t the address the question proposed earlier in this paper. How big of a role does ionizing radiation play in cancer deaths? Rather than cancer deaths, Cohen projects life expectancies. There are no specific statistics that relate to deaths. Though ionizing radiation is linked to cancer, there simply isn’t enough information to prove that it greatly contributes or is insignificant to cancer death rates.
And there might not ever be enough information. When it comes to radiation, the collection of data is a convoluted process. How do researchers know that the thyroid cancer a patient developed was truly borne out of radiation? If a patient was found to have leukemia, and lived only a few miles away from a nuclear facility, how do researchers know it wasn’t caused by hereditary means? As more questions like these arise, it is only the continuation of the advancement of science and research that might give answers.