Do long-term, low doses of ionic radiation cause any ill effect on your health?
Recently, this question has attracted significant attention because of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident and also because of the increasing use of ionic radiations in medical settings. In fact, medical diagnostic procedures, such as X rays and CT scans, are major manmade sources of ionizing radiations today.
Even many years after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the southern districts of Belarus are still highly contaminated. And amidst fears that nuclear reactors from Japan’s Fukushima site are still spewing radioactive waste into the Pacific Ocean, these growing concerns regarding small but continuous doses of radiation exposure seems valid.
Internal emitters: Continuous exposure to radiations
After any nuclear fallout, the radioactivity in the environment becomes magnified many times in the food chain and is likely to persist for a long time, irradiating organisms both externally and internally. Consumption of contaminated food or water is especially dangerous. The radionuclides mimic nutrients to enter and accumulate in various parts of the body, where they keep releasing radioactive energy as they decay, continuously damaging cells and tissues. With their long half-lives, these internal emitters carry more risks than the exposure from an external source.
In this video, Dr. Junro FUSE, Internist and head of Kosugi Medical Clinic near Tokyo, Japan said, “Risk from internal exposure is 200-600 times greater than risk from external exposure.”
Bystander effect: Affecting neighbouring non-radiated cells
The radioactive substances not only damage the local tissue but also harm the surrounding cells through what is known as the bystander effect. Irradiated cells transmit harmful signals to other cells in close proximity but not directly exposed to radiation. This triggers undesired responses similar to those observed in cells that have been irradiated – including increasing frequency of genetic mutations and cell death. 
Is there a safe threshold?
Ionizing radiation knocks off electrons from the cells, leading to the production of free radicals that can trigger chemical changes in the cell. These changes can either kill the cell, prevent it from reproducing it further or alter the enclosed genetic information that can cause DNA mutations that can be passed from one generation to the next. The majority of DNA damage caused by radiation exposure occurs through the formation of free radicals. These radiations can also damage the DNA directly.
There is convincing evidence that ionizing radiation increases the risk of cancer and other diseases long after the initial radiation exposure, including birth defects, reproductive and fertility issues, cataracts and cardiovascular disease – impacting both life and health span.
However, the science is not very clear on the consequences of long term exposure to low levels of radiation. Policy makers and health agencies usually downplay the risks emanating from such exposure. But as Dr. Ian Fairlie, a London-based independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment puts it, there is no safe dose of radiation below which exposure is harmless or there is no risk, except zero dose.
“Stochastic means an all-or-nothing response: you either get cancer or you don’t. As you decrease the dose, the effects become less likely and your chance of cancer declines all the way down to zero dose. The corollary is that tiny doses, even well below background, still carry a small chance of cancer: there is never a safe dose, except zero dose.” 
This Washington Blog article reported, “Many epidemiologic studies show that extremely low doses of radiation increase the incidence of childhood cancers, low birth-weight babies, premature births, infant mortality, birth defects and even diminished intelligence. Just two abdominal x-rays delivered to a male can slightly increase the chance of his future children developing leukemia. By damaging proteins anywhere in a living cell, radiation can accelerate the aging process and diminish the function of any organ. Cells can repair themselves, but the rapidly growing cells in a foetus may divide before repair can occur, negating the body’s defence mechanism and replicating the damage.”
This analysis of 46 peer-reviewed studies published over the past 40 years found that even a low level of radioactivity can damage health. The review focused on the studies of world locations with higher natural background radiation than other parts of the world. The scientists reported small but statistically significant negative effects on DNA, immune functions, disease occurrence and other health measures. 
Mousseau, one of the study leaders, has been quoted in the Science Daily as saying that, “there is no threshold below which there are no effects of radiation. “He further adds that “With the levels of contamination that we have seen as a result of nuclear power plants, especially in the past, and even as a result of Chernobyl and Fukushima and related accidents, there’s an attempt in the industry to downplay the doses that the populations are getting, because maybe it’s only one or two times beyond what is thought to be the natural background level,” he said. “But they’re assuming the natural background levels are fine.“ 
Should you worry?
The science may be divided and uncertainties may still hover around the health risks of chronic, low level exposure to radiations. But when you see these risks as something that could be passed over coming generations, the stakes are high. When an organism is exposed to radiation, the genetic damage or mutations may not be immediately visible but expressed in future generations. It is important to note that children and adolescents are much more vulnerable to radiation exposure than adults as their cells are rapidly dividing. And a growing baby in the womb is even more sensitive to these risks.
What can you do to reduce the risk? How can you keep yourself and your family safe? The fear of radiation may be more damaging than the radiation itself – leading to stress and worry. You stand a better chance of combating the radiation exposure risk with the help of good diet and anti-oxidant supplements.
Highlighting the role of antioxidants, the Japanese College of Intravenous Therapy (JCIT) says, “it is our strongest recommendations those living in the affected areas regularly take antioxidant supplements such as vitamin C to counteract the negative consequences of long term low dose radiation exposure as well as protect the health of coming generations.” 
- A Marin et al. Bystander effects and radiotherapy. Rep Pract Oncol Radiother. 2015
- Ian Fairlie. Fukushima: Thousands Have Already Died, Thousands More Will Die. Counter Punch. 2015.
- University of South Carolina. “Even low-level radioactivity is damaging, scientists conclude.” ScienceDaily. November 2012.
- Anders P. Møller, Timothy A. Mousseau. The effects of natural variation in background radioactivity on humans, animals and other organisms. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2013.
- Yanagisawa A. Orthomolecular approaches against radiation exposure. Presentation Orthomolecular Medicine Today Conference. Toronto 2011 http://www.doctoryourself.com/Radiation_VitC.pptx.pdf )