In 1946, Hermann Muller won the Nobel Prize for demonstrating the ability to x-rays (and therefore other forms of ionizing radiation) to cause mutations in living cells. There is no doubt that Muller’s discovery was profound and vital to understanding radiation’s effects on living things and to establishing the field of health physics and radiation protection. The fact that radiation could cause mutations also had important implications to the understanding of cell biology and genetics.
Muller was also an early proponent in the establishment of the linear non-threshold hypothesis for radiation exposure. Despite a lack of conclusive supporting evidence, LNT has become the mainstay for radiation policy and is accepted as fact by many government agencies. The simplistic model basically states that radiation always causes damage with the potential for cancer and that the increase in risk is directly proportional to the exposure level. Thus, there is no “safe” level and all radiation should be avoided when possible, though the danger is small if the exposure is small.
Despite the fact that, even by LNT predictions, the level of exposure from living near a nuclear power plant presents a miniscule increase in risk (less than living next to a coal burner), the model has been used very effectively to argue that nuclear energy is always unacceptable, because the tiny amounts of radiation involved still present a risk. (Don’t ask me how they can make the case that nuclear is worse than coal or gas, or for that matter, having a granite counter top which involve more exposure. I still can’t figure that out.) The model has also resulted in extreme fear of medical radiation, resulting in calls for limiting of potentially life saving imaging and cancer treatment procedures.
While it has always been known that Muller did not have conclusive evidence to prove his claims of an LNT dose-risk relationship, evidence now indicates he may have had evidence that actually refuted it.
AMHERST, Mass. – University of Massachusetts Amherst environmental toxicologist Edward Calabrese, whose career research shows that low doses of some chemicals and radiation are benign or even helpful, says he has uncovered evidence that one of the fathers of radiation genetics, Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller, knowingly lied when he claimed in 1946 that there is no safe level of radiation exposure.
Calabreseâ€™s interpretation of this history is supported by letters and other materials he has retrieved, many from formerly classified files. He published key excerpts this month in Archives of Toxicology and Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis.
Muller was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery that X-rays induce genetic mutations. This helped him call attention to his long-time concern over the dangers of atomic testing. Mullerâ€™s intentions were good, Calabrese points out, but his decision not to mention key scientific evidence against his position has had a far-reaching impact on our approach to regulating radiation and chemical exposure.
Calabrese uncovered correspondence from November 1946 between Muller and Curt Stern at the University of Rochester about a major experiment that had recently evaluated fruit fly germ cell mutations in Sternâ€™s laboratory. It failed to support the linear dose-response model at low exposure levels, but in Mullerâ€™s speech in Oslo a few weeks later he insisted there was “no escape from the conclusion that there is no threshold.” To Calabrese, this amounts to deliberate concealment and he says Stern raised no objection.
Calabrese adds, “This isnâ€™t an academic debate, itâ€™s really practical, because all of our rules about chemical and low-level radiation are based on the premises that Muller and the National Academy of Sciencesâ€™ (NAS) committee adopted at that time. Now, after all these years, itâ€™s very hard when people have been frightened to death by this dogma to persuade them that we donâ€™t need to be scared by certain low-dose exposures.”
Within a year after Muller and his group persuaded the NAS to accept the linear model for gonadal mutations, the practice was extrapolated to somatic cells and cancer. Twenty years later, NAS adopted the linear approach for chemicals. Soon thereafter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would use the linear model for risk assessment, Calabrese points out.
Some can accept that even the most distinguished scientists have human failings, he acknowledges. But his view is that “the regulatory research community needs to hear about this. The implications of my findings are that we should revisit our exposure regulations because our regulatory history is founded on a deception. We have seen literally hundreds of thousands of cleanup decisions based on a model that was fraudulently derived. I think we should probably have drastically different exposure standards today, and far less fear.”
Calabrese believes, “The die was cast by Muller and regulations adopted since then have gone unchallenged. I think he got his beliefs and his science confused, and he couldnâ€™t admit that the science was unresolved. So he went ahead and expressed an opinion about how to handle the public health situation.”
Muller may well have had Nobel intentions in withholding this information, but the results show why it is so dangerous for a scientist to abandon objective scientific observation in favor of cherry-picking data to make a point. Like many in his day, Muller was terrified by the thought of an all-out nuclear war and saw the nuclear testing that was being undertaken by the United States and Soviet Union as dangerous to both humans and the environment. By championing LNT in the 1940′s and 1950′s, even when doing so meant withholding data, Muller was making a powerful argument against the use or testing of nuclear weapons.
In 1946, nuclear weapons were fairly new, but their devastating effects had been made clear at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The US was about to begin a the first test series at Bikini Atoll, and it had become clear that the Soviet Union would eventually have the bomb, even as the United States worked to build its stockpile and improve weapon yields.�� A clear doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons had yet to be established, and many saw them as being the next weapon for use in modern warfare.� There was also limited regulation on the testing of weapons and many of the early atmospheric tests did indeed result in levels of radiation exposure that could result in harm.
The belief that even a small amount of fallout was harmful may well have helped to eventually drive nuclear tests underground and may have played a roll in the eventual withdrawal of “battlefield nukes” and policies that could have seen nuclear weapons used on a small scale in regional conflicts. The lives of some in the Marshall Islands (who received doses which are undoubtedly high enough to increase cancer risk) may even have been saved by the fear of fallout that eventually stopped atmospheric nuclear testing. But it also has resulted in many cancer patients not getting the level of treatment most beneficial, and lives have been lost because of this. It has resulted in nuclear energy being kept from making the kind of impact on health and climate it can and it has lead to a culture of radiophobia.
In the end, the increase in caution with nuclear testing undoubtedly resulted in fewer lives saved than have since been lost due to radiophobia, which has resulted� in ineffective cancer treatment, the under-utilization of lifesaving medical imaging, the lack of universal food irradiation and the extreme restraints placed on nuclear energy.
Perhaps, Muller would have acted differently if he could have seen the consequences of his dishonesty as they exist today.� Regardless of his intention, what he did is still unacceptable and worthy of rebuke.� Science is founded on the principle that facts are objectively reported.�� Violating this tenet undermines the entire process and corrupts the expansion of human knowledge of nature.
If you want to influence policy through the telling of lies, become a politician.� That’s their job.�� It’s not the job of scientists.
This entry was posted on Saturday, October 22nd, 2011 at 9:43 pm and is filed under Bad Science, History, Misc, Nuclear, Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
View blog reactions