In 1896, the French scientist Henri Becquerel observed spontaneous emissions from uranium and called this phenomenon radiation. The first recorded radiation treatment occurred the same year. Early successful uses of radiation to treat various illnesses and ailments captured the public imagination—everyone hoped their bodily problems could be cured with these seemingly limitless materials.
Marie Curie’s discovery of radium in 1898 also fascinated the public. Its radioluminescence gave it a magical quality, and companies were quick to churn out radium-infused health and wellness products including toothpastes, soaps, beauty creams, and radium pads that could be placed on afflicted body parts. Liquid sunshine cocktails, or radium-infused beverages, became a health fad in the early 1900s. Upper-class consumers in cities around the world were eager to get their hands on these energizing elixirs which were advertised as all-purpose cures.
The public’s love affair with radium fizzled out as reports rolled in of painful diseases and deaths associated with radiation poisoning. One of the most famous examples was the 1920s Radium Girls case. Many women working at clock factories developed osteonecrosis (bone tissue death) and osteosarcomas (bone tumors) around their jaws along with other painful conditions. Over a dozen of the women died. Investigators discovered that the women were interacting with toxic levels of radium by constantly pointing brushes on their lips—the brushes being covered in glow-in-the-dark radium paint, of course.
Eventually, the FDA and FTC (and health officials in other countries) cracked down on the use of radium in consumer products as awareness of radiation poisoning grew. The dangers of radioactive materials overtook the public consciousness in 1945 when the devastation of America’s atomic bombs was revealed. Subsequent studies on radiation and nuclear accidents Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) further solidified fears of radiation and hindered the development of nuclear medicine.
This is because we are operating under the linear no-threshold (LNT) radiation paradigm, which is based on the ideas that all radiation exposure levels are harmful and each increment of exposure adds to the overall risk of negative health effects. However, a different paradigm emerged in the 1990s. Radiation hormesis, which is still very controversial, is based on the ideas that low levels of radiation exposure produce different effects than high-level exposure. In fact, small doses of radiation may improve health!
Some scientists believe in this paradigm because the body has already evolved to protect DNA against low-level radiation that occurs naturally. Free radical scavengers are a type of radioprotector molecule that can repair the loss of electrons or hydrogen atoms. This naturally occurs in cellular molecules due to metabolic processes but is also caused by radiation exposure. Free radical scavengers can repair this low-level radiation damage. Another concern with radiation is DNA mutation. It is estimated that 10,000 genetic modifications already happen every hour in your body! Whether the cause is a natural error or low-level radiation exposure, enzymes are constantly checking and repairing DNA. Low-level radiation exposure can also cause cell death during reproduction and interphase. Instead of viewing this as a harmful effect, radiation hormesis interprets this as a positive strategy for the body to prevent damaged cells from reproducing.
This controversial framework is supported by several studies. Among atomic bomb survivors, those exposed to low levels of radiation experience a lower rate of leukemia than average people. This is contrasted by the higher rate of leukemia among survivors exposed to high levels of radiation. Under the LNT paradigm, we expect the leukemia rate to be higher than average even among survivors exposed to low levels of radiation, which is not the case.
Other experimental studies demonstrate health benefits from low doses of radiation including reducing the likelihood of neoplastic transformation (when cells begin to grow abnormally or excessively, which can be benign or cancerous), activating enzymes and mechanisms that protect and repair DNA, and stimulating the immune system. Again, the LNT paradigm leads us to expect the opposite results, that even low-level radiation would negatively impact these areas of health.
So what does radiation hormesis really tell us? Is it okay to guzzle liquid sunshine cocktails again if the radium dose is small enough? Let’s hold off on that…in the meantime, we can take inspiration from the radiation hormesis framework and curb our knee-jerk negative reaction to anything involving radiation. Who knows what will be discovered if we open our minds to the possibilities of nuclear medicine and nuclear energy!
(Reminder: refrain from immediately ingesting any new discoveries…)
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Jolly, D., & Meyer, J. (2009). A brief review of radiation hormesis. Australasian Physical & Engineering Sciences in Medicine, 32(4), 180-7. Retrieved from https://go.openathens.net/redirector/gatech.edu?url=https://search.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/brief-review-radiation-hormesis/docview/204630213/se-2?accountid=11107
Prekeges, J. L. (2003). Radiation hormesis, or, could all that radiation be good for us? Journal of Nuclear Medicine Technology, 31(2), 11-7. Retrieved from https://go.openathens.net/redirector/gatech.edu?url=https://search.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/radiation-hormesis-could-all-that-be-good-us/docview/218635974/se-2?accountid=11107