October 18, 2018

Is the Trump admin lowering radiation guidelines? Critics say yes, EPA says no.

Daily Briefing

    Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a rule that reinvigorated debate over radiation's effect on human health and led some to believe the Trump administration was looking to weaken radiation guidelines, Ellen Knickmeyer reports for the Associated Press. But the Trump administration is now trying to set the record straight. 

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    EPA seeks to alter scientific transparency rule

    The proposed rule deals with EPA's standards for transparency in science, Knickmeyer reports. The proposed rule would mandate that regulators must consider "various threshold models across the exposure range" when creating regulations for dangerous chemicals.

    Currently, EPA uses the so-called "linear-no-threshold model" for setting regulations related to radiation. Based on that model, EPA's current guidelines say there is no safe level of radiation exposure, and that "[e]ven exposures below 100 millisieverts," which is equivalent to about 25 chest X-rays, can "slightly increase the risk of getting cancer in the future."

    According to Knickmeyer, the proposed rule does not specifically reference radiation. However, a press release on the proposed rule that was issued under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt quotes Edward Calabrese, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts, who has argued that exposure to low levels of radiation and other carcinogens can act as stressors that trigger the body's repair mechanisms, and ultimately can improve individuals' health in a manner similar to sunlight exposure and physical exercise.

    In the release, Calabrese calls the proposed rule "a major scientific step forward" in assessing the risk of "chemicals and radiation."

    EPA says the proposed rule won't change radiation standards

    But EPA spokesperson John Konkus has said the proposed rule will not change radiation regulations. "The proposed regulation doesn't talk about radiation or any particular chemicals," he said. Konkus continued, "EPA's policy is to continue to use the linear no-threshold model for population-level radiation protection purposes which would not, under the proposed regulation that has not been finalized, trigger any change in that policy."

    Konkus added that the proposed rule simply seeks to increase "transparency on assumptions" about how the body reacts to varying doses of dangerous substances. He said EPA "acknowledges uncertainty regarding health effects at low doses" and supports more research into those effects.

    Konkus also added that the press release was issued under Pruitt and said he did not know why the release quoted Calabrese regarding the proposed rule's impact on radiation levels.

    Proposed rule prompts radiation debate

    Nonetheless, the proposed rule and the press release re-fueled the debate over radiation and health, Knickmeyer reports. 

    Some experts—such as Brant Ulsh, a physicist with M.H Chew and Associates—have voiced support for the proposed rule and Calabrese's assessment, arguing that EPA's current linear no-threshold model leads to unnecessary spending at nuclear plants, in medical centers, and at various other sites.

    Ulsh said the United States currently "spend[s] an enormous effort trying to minimize low doses" of radiation, when instead stakeholders should "spend the resources on minimizing the effect of a really big event."

    But critics argue that Calabrese's assessment goes against consensus amongst the scientific community, and have raised concerns that the proposed rule could weaken radiation regulations.

    Roy Shore, chief of research at the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, noted that a recent National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements review of 29 public health studies confirmed the linear no-threshold model, finding that 20 of the 29 studies directly supported the view that even a low dose of radiation can significantly increase in cancer risk. According to Shore, the remaining nine studies either were inconclusive or flawed, meaning none of the studies supported the theory that there is any safe amount of radiation exposure.

    Jan Beyea, a physicist who has worked with the National Academies of Science on research related to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, said the proposed ruled represents views "generally dismissed by the great bulk of scientists." She added that the proposed rule would lead to "increases in chemical and radiation exposures in the workplace, home, and outdoor environment" (Knickmeyer, AP/STAT News, 10/2).

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