Lawrence Solomon: Port Hope — a hot spot that may be cool

(Nov. 13, 2010) Nuclear workers in Port Hope contract fewer cancers.

Thirty-five years ago, Canada’s first radioactive cleanup of a contaminated town was ordered for Port Hope, Ont., after my organization, Energy Probe, proved and publicized gross violations of radiation safety standards. Today, 35 years and many protests with many high-profile environmentalists later, the issue of contamination has not gone away. The earth-moving equipment is back for yet another cleanup and local environmental groups are bringing in yet another high-profile anti-nuclear activist — Dr. Helen Caldicott, head of Physicians for Nuclear Responsibility, who is calling for the town’s 16,500 residents to be relocated before its “carcinogenic time bomb” explodes.

One thing has changed, though. My organization is no longer confident that low levels of radiation, such as those that now remain in Port Hope, pose a danger. To the contrary, a growing body of evidence indicates that low levels of radiation could actually confer a health benefit. Rather than continuing the 10-year $260-million-plus cleanup that has just begun, or contemplating the more extreme measure of closing down the town, the safest course to take may well be to move out the bulldozers instead of the townsfolk.

Port Hope, a pretty town on the shores of Lake Ontario 100 kilometres east of Toronto and home to the country’s largest rehabilitation involving low-level radioactive waste, may be the most researched, rehabilitated, remediated and monitored community in the world. Port Hope became a major uranium refining town during the Second World War as part of the Manhattan Project, under the auspices of a federal Crown corporation, Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. Since the first cleanup began in the mid-1970s, various government agencies have moved some 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soils to other locations, have managed another two million tonnes and, after the next move of contaminated soils is completed in 2020, have plans to supervise the new repository for the next 500 years. Meanwhile, other government agencies have overseen 30-odd environmental studies and 13 epidemiological studies of the health of residents who may have been contaminated over the decades.

The many studies generally show that the town’s level of radioactivity, and the health of its residents, is no different from that found in other communities. That doesn’t allay the fears of many, who fear radioactive hot spots, who rightly point out that no full-scale independent public environmental assessment has ever been carried out and who note that official bodies — those in Canada included — state there is no safe level of radiation.

Yet the view that radiation is dangerous in small doses is no less contestable than the conclusions of the many studies done to date. All of the official bodies that state that low levels of radiation are dangerous freely admit that they have no proof for their belief. In the absence of information, they say, the only prudent course is to assume that radiation poses danger in small doses as well as large.

Yet the information is now coming in, say many scientists who study the effects of low levels of radiation on human health. And it shows that low levels of radiation tend to be healthful, or hormetic, to use the medical term.

The planet has many regions that are naturally high in radiation because of the minerals in the ground or because of elevation — the higher up you live, the higher the dose of radiation you receive. Some parts of North America are 10 times more radioactive than others. Those who live in high-radiation regions tend to contract fewer cancers. One study found a 25% higher cancer mortality rate in the lowland states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, than in the Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Colorado and New Mexico, where residents receive five times as much radiation. Colorado does especially well, with a cancer mortality rate 30% below the national average for males and 25% for females.

Our government assumes that radiation plays no role in protecting the townsfolk of Port Hope, but that assumption, too, has no basis. The studies of nuclear workers in Port Hope show them to contract fewer cancers, and to live longer, than the general population of Port Hope, and also those who live in Port Hope contract fewer leukemias than those who live in the nearby area.

Could the benefit of working in proximity to radiation be an indication of radiation’s beneficial effect? Port Hope residents don’t know. “The studies weren’t designed to look for hormetic effects,” explained Patsy Thompson, director deneral of the federal government’s Directorate of Environmental and Radiation Protection and Assessment.

But Port Hope residents should know. “If I were from Port Hope, what I would be asking for is a full environmental assessment, and a public hearing that gives the people who live in that area the right to question and cross-examine the scientists and so-called experts who draft the conclusions,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., another environmentalist whom local organizers brought to Port Hope in an earlier protest that attempted to get at the truth of what radiation means for Port Hope. “I can’t understand that there’s any reason why that kind of hearing shouldn’t exist.”

There is no reason. A full assessment that allowed all parties to bring forward independent environmental and health experts, and then have them withstand expert challenges, would at a minimum remove uncertainty and spur swift remediation — this picture postcard town, which boasts more heritage buildings per capita than anywhere else in Canada, loses tourist dollars as well as pride of place whenever its environment is disparaged.

At a maximum, the evidence would show that radiation in small doses enhances life, that there’s no reason to fear invisible threats in their air or water, and that $260-million doesn’t need to be spent fixing a non-problem. The endeavour would be worthy. Port Hope should live up to its name.

Lawrence Solomon, Financial Post, November 13, 2010

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