Radiation and public health

Leeka Kheifets, Myles Cockburn and Manjit Dosanjh

in Oxford Textbook of Public Health

Fifth edition

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print September 2009 | ISBN: 9780199218707
Published online March 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199609673 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Textbooks

Radiation and public health

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This chapter reviews sources, health effects, and policies for limiting human exposure to ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. Technological developments involving exposure to electromagnetic fields bring social and economic benefits to large sections of society but the health consequences of these developments can be difficult to predict and manage. Biological effects and our knowledge of the health effects of these forms of energy varies: For ionizing radiation, ultraviolet radiation, and power frequency fields numerous state-of-the art epidemiologic and toxicologic investigations, covering a variety of endpoints, have been undertaken. While numerous studies of static and radiofrequency fields have been completed, much of the key research is yet to be done; and for intermediate frequencies, only scant information is available.

Of numerous health effects that have been studied in relation to various aspects of radiation, cancer has received the most attention and appears to be an outcome with the strongest link to exposures at most frequencies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified ionizing radiation as a ‘known’ or Group 1 carcinogen; ultraviolet radiation was classified as ‘probable human carcinogen’, or a Group 2A carcinogen; while extremely low frequency magnetic fields have been classified as a ‘possible human carcinogen’, or a Group 2B: Static fields as well as extremely low frequency electric fields have been assigned Group 3 (not classifiable as to carcinogenicity to humans). Intermediate frequencies, radio frequency fields, and infrared radiation have not yet been evaluated as to their carcinogenic potential.

Insufficient knowledge and inconsistency in the existing data presents difficulties in the development of public health policies. Additional issues include balancing benefits of technologies to the society overall with potential risks to individuals. As it is not possible to eliminate exposure to ionizing radiation, these exposures are kept to a practical minimum. Most recommend avoiding solar UV exposure in order to facilitate the prevention of skin cancers. However, because recent literature suggests beneficial effects of solar UV exposure it is critical to develop and adopt a well-balanced set of recommendations regarding this exposure. For ELF magnetic fields, given exposure prevalence, considerable scientific uncertainty and limited public health impact, only very low-cost precautionary measures are justified. For RF, while health risks have not been identified, potential risk could affect a large number of people because of the ubiquitous nature of the exposure. Thus given important gaps in knowledge and availability of no to low cost measures for mobile phones precautionary measures can and should be adopted. Higher risks are more acceptable in medical applications, which employ a variety of frequency and bring direct benefit to individuals.

Chapter.  15537 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Public Health and Epidemiology ; Public Health

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