Lawrence Solomon: One health activist attacks another (through me)

(February 9, 2011) Energy Probe Executive Director Lawrence Solomon refutes the claim that Port Hope has elevated levels of radiation.

“Port Hope is the deep dark underbelly of the Canadian nuclear industry, representing dangers that so far, have escaped sufficient scrutiny and cleanup. … no level of radiation is safe and it is cumulative — each dose adds to the risk of cancer. Children are 10 to 20 times more radiosensitive than adults, and fetuses are extremely sensitive.”

So wrote Dr. Helen Caldicott, an Australian health activist campaigning to evacuate the town of Port Hope, in an Ottawa Citizen article yesterday. The shoddy science in the article so incensed David Sweanor, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and once a prominent health activist himself, that he asked me to respond. Dave was for years the voice of the Non-Smoker’s Rights Association, an organization with unparalleled success in opposing pollution from cigarette smoke.

Dave wrote me partly because I had previously countered Caldicott’s claims about Port Hope, partly because he was too pressed for time to respond himself, and partly because he grew up in Port Hope, and as a summer student had been involved in the massive cleanup of radioactive soil that took place throughout the town. Dave knows firsthand that fears of radiation contamination had been hyped.

One of the jobs I had that summer was to stand by the gate of a site where this apparently contaminated soil was being taken and to thoroughly scan the dump trucks with my Geiger counter as they were leaving in order to ensure all the radioactive material had been disposed of,” he wrote me. “Well, being a bored and sceptical student I started to also scan the trucks as they arrived fully laden with the removed soil, and guess what? That they were free of elevated radioactivity levels upon leaving was not overly surprising because they were similarly free of such radioactivity upon arriving. They were, at great monetary and carbon expense, removing soil that registered normal background levels of radiation.”

Over the decades, government agencies have moved some 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soils to other locations and overseen 30-odd environmental studies and 13 epidemiological studies of the health of residents who may have been contaminated over the decades. Those studies generally show that the town’s level of radioactivity, and the health of its residents, compare with those found in other communities.  In fact, the studies of nuclear workers in Port Hope obtained results that the researchers didn’t design for, and didn’t expect – the Port Hope nuclear workers contracted fewer cancers, and lived longer, than the general population of Port Hope. Those who live in Port Hope also contract fewer leukemias than those who live in the nearby area.
These findings point to a possible protective effect from low-level radiation – a phenomenon known as hormesis that is attracting increasing attention from medical research.  Caldicott in her article decries the lack of relevant research into radiation at Port Hope. I would agree with her here, only I view the most glaring need to be studies that would determine if Port Hope residents have been living longer and more healthily as a result of radiation. Dave’s engaging letter certainly raises that possibility.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the author of The Deniers.

Financial Post, February 9, 2011.


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