We in western Colorado give little thought to the notion that we’re inundated by radiation on a daily basis, more so that most anywhere in the nation. As The Daily Sentinel’s Matthew Berger explained on Monday, background radiation on the West Slope is the result of several factors.
We are bombarded in western Colorado by more cosmic radiation than most of the rest of the nation. Not surprisingly, residents of mile-high Denver are on the receiving end of more cosmic radiation than we are on the West Slope.
The West Slope, however, sits atop nearly twice the amount of terrestrial radiation than do our fellow Coloradans on the opposite side of the Continental Divide. We on the west side of the state also live in the midst of more radon gas, which results from the breakdown of uranium and thorium. In all, we in Colorado are subject to about four times the background radiation as the rest of the United States.
All of which begs the question: So?
Well, we know that, generally, radiation, especially in large doses, is bad for humans. It kills in sudden, large doses. But what of the steady drip, drip, drip of radiation, such as we in Colorado experience? Is it the equivalent of water torture by the millirem, resulting not in madness but in physical incapacity, illness or mutation?
Well, the truth is we don’t really know.
Congress has weighed in on one level, finding that miners and other workers in the uranium industry of the 1940s to 1970 who have since been afflicted by certain cancers, such as lung and renal cancer, and other ailments, are eligible for compassionate payments. Not all who worked in the industry then, however, contracted those illnesses believed to be related to high radiation exposure.
In fact, the best measure we have is the kind of illnesses found in the survivors of the bombings in 1945 of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. We’ve extrapolated from those short-term, high-dose bursts of radiation the likely results of long-term, low-dose exposure.
One particular incident of long-term exposure to relatively high doses of radiation even seemed to demonstrate a prophylactic effect against conditions believed to be linked to exposure. In that case, radiation-contaminated steel was used to construct a building in Taiwan that was home to some 10,000 people who lived there from nine to 20 years.
We would normally expect the incidence of radiation-related conditions to skyrocket, but the fact was, according to the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, that cancer-related mortality rates were a mere fraction of the surrounding population. Ditto the incidence of congenital malformation among children.
Contrary to most assumptions, “it appears that significant beneficial health effects may be associated with this chronic radiation exposure,” the authors wrote. The authors also called for more study to better understand the effects of that exposure.
That sounds like a good prescription for everyone, but especially those of us on the Western Slope: We need much more study of how humans are affected by all types of radiation.