State of contamination

It can come from anywhere: the radium dial on your pocket watch, a bone scan or dental X-ray. Or, in the worst case, a reactor accident like Three Mile Island.

Radiation causes ionization in the molecules of living cells and, in some instances, can cause damage leading to cancer or, in an extreme case, radiation sickness. In very low doses, like the background radiation we’re exposed to every day, the cells repair the damage quickly.

But the great unknown in this realm is the risk surrounding continued exposure to low-level radiation that goes beyond background levels. Because radiation conceivably could cause cancer in the long run, we naturally want answers to questions about the risks of radiation.

The people who run our government have an obligation to warn us about avoidable health hazards. That is why government agencies like the Department of Health Services exist. They need to keep accurate records of radiation exposure at nuclear, biotechnology and medical sites and share it with the public. As you’ll read in our cover story (“It glows,” page 14), that hasn’t always been the case. We have serious questions about protection standards for de-licensing dangerous sites and also about how much low-level radiation is being allowed in California landfills.

On the one hand, DHS is telling us not to worry about the amount of radiative material that goes into landfills. On the other, the department tells us those amounts are not public information because terrorists might get their hands on radiative materials and make “dirty bombs.” Sounds like bureaucratic double talk.

With this kind of uncertainty regarding risk standards and shadowy security concerns, we think members of the public need to know the facts before risks can be assessed.