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"Breaking news, my radiation levels have quadrupled" -- well we have some good news for you, Dr. Gupta. Contrary to your claims, peer-reviewed research indicates you're safe.  (Source: CNN.com)

A study conducted in Ramsar, Iran, a place where natural background radiation levels were even higher, showed people had no scientifically notable adverse affects.  (Source: High Background Radiation Areas of Ramsar, Iran)

This appears a cut-and-dry case of sensationalism on the part of several major media corporations. The unfortunate victim is nuclear power, as the public is growing misinformed by these high-profile, but factually inaccurate pieces.  (Source: Google Images)
Peer reviewed research indicates there's no significant health risk of current radiation levels

Yesterday we posted an editorial on an MSNBC article describing the quake "risk" facing U.S. nuclear plants.  In our piece we discuss factual accuracy issues in that article and its overall sensational tone in failing to immediately address the supporting study's key conclusion -- that we're at extremely little risk.

I.  CNN Claims Tokyo Residents May be in Danger

This morning CNN.com aired a similar story entitled "Gupta: 'My radiation levels quadrupled'".  The video featured none other that CNN.com's respected chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta Ph.D.  

In it he discusses how he's been tracking his radiation level during his time in Tokyo, Japan with a pocket dosimeter, following the minor leakage of radiation from a damaged Tokyo power plant in the Fukushima district.

In the video he begins by conservatively stating, "Interestingly, my levels quadrupled over the last 36 hours that I've been wearing this. Which in and of itself may sound concerning, but to put it in a little bit of context, it's actually not that much higher than the levels you would get with background radiation.  It is higher for sure, and that makes sense given that if you're measuring the air outside here in Tokyo official reports say its twenty times higher in terms of radiation levels that in normally is."

CNN.com's John King continues to try to prod Dr. Gupta to try to speculate that residents are at risk.  He states, "Your caution and perspective is very valuable.  Let me ask this way -- if you've quadrupled in the last 36 hours, if it takes a couple of weeks, a couple of months to get this containment effort under control at this complex and there's a release of consistent levels of what we've seen over the past couple days, what happens then.  You mentioned you are exposed to radiation you would get in a year in a matter... what happens if, people are exposed for... 7 more months.  Does it then become a risk?"

Now this was a curious assertion.  No one knows how long it will take to control the release, but seven months certainly seems like it would require a negligently slow effort.  And is it correct to be speculating on perspective scenarios when you could be covering the actual story that's occurring?

Dr. Gupta's responds there could be some risk under the scenario while going on to qualify the differences between long-term exposure and short-term exposure.  He also mentions possible routes of contamination such via food and drinking water.  And before he can put any more context or disclaimers on those numbers, Mr. King cuts him off.

II. The Real Risk?  Likely None, Says Peer-Reviewed Research

So what is the real risk?  Nowhere in the interview did they actually give a precise figure.  And that's because the medical community isn't sure if there is one, if they're following peer-reviewed research. 

Consider if John King's wild scenario did play out, the Tokyo population could be exposed to approximately 8.6 mSv per year.  To put this in context, people in Yangjiang, China receive 3.51 mSv per year naturally; in Guarpan, Brazil, 5.5 mSv naturally; in Kerala, India 3.8 mSv naturally; and in Ramsar, Iran 10.2 mSv naturally [source].  

A study [abstract] [full text] in the peer-reviewed journal Health Physics examined the population of Ramsar, Iran.  

It concluded, "Specifically, inhabitants of high background radiation areas had about 56% the average number of induced chromosomal abnormalities of normal background radiation area inhabitants following this exposure. This suggests that adaptive response might be induced by chronic exposure to natural background radiation as opposed to acute exposure to higher (tens of mGy) levels of radiation in the laboratory. There were no differences in laboratory tests of the immune systems, and no noted differences in hematological alterations between these two groups of people."

In other words, people exposed, in the real world to radiation levels higher than John King's worse case scenario were no unhealthier than people in the U.S. or elsewhere.

To be fair, John King essentially goaded Dr. Gupta into stating a risk, postulating increasingly extreme scenarios.  And Dr. Gupta likely tried to postulate a response based on certain animal tests that suggested that low-level radiation exposure could have some adverse effect.  But there's been no comprehensive study in the real world that's showed similar effects in humans.

By contrast to CNN.com's sensationalism, ABC's Hawaii affiliate had a refreshing, scientifically sound piece entitled "Everyone Receives Background Radiation."  In that piece they write:

"Somewhere around 5,000 millirems per year for several years would be dangerous," said [Toufiq Siddiqi, with Global Environment & Energy in the 21sr Century].

Leaked radiation at the Japanese nuclear power plants has been reported below that level, so far.

So not all news articles are sensationalizing the story, apparently -- just a number of them.

CNN.com should beware using factually inaccurate fear mongering to support page views.  Making scientific claims in the media that are contradicted by peer-reviewed research is questionable.  About the only good thing is that the site later changed the title of the link on its homepage to the slightly less sensational "Gupta: Explaining radiation levels" -- but his conclusions are still flawed, according to peer-reviewed research.

The media is certainly profiting off of drumming up public fervor with wild nuclear scare stories.  Unfortunately, many of these stories appear to be utterly factually inaccurate.



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RE: This sucks.
By Solandri on 3/17/2011 4:42:47 PM , Rating: 3
On day 2 of the nuclear accident, CNN had Wolf Blitzer interviewing the Japanese ambassador live. Their lead-in to the story was that the fuel rods in the reactors might be suffering a meltdown. His first question to the ambassador was if there was a meltdown in progress? The ambassador said he had heard there might have been some melting, but the situation was not so out of control yet for a meltdown to be possible.

This seemed to throw Wolf a bit off track. He seemed to be a bit lost as to what to do since the interviewee had just refuted the lead-in they were running on. He then spent the next 5 minutes essentially asking the same question over and over, phrased slightly differently each time, trying to get the ambassador to say that there was a meltdown, or even admit that it might possibly turn into a meltdown.

But to their credit, their coverage has been much better of late. I think many of them got a crash course on nuclear physics overnight. Gupta has been one of the better ones, always putting the Sievert radiation readings into terms regular people can understand (x times normal background, like a chest x-ray, etc). They still go for the sensationalist headlines, and the hosts tend to get carried away. But at least now they are letting the experts the get on finish with their explanations, instead of interrupting them to ask a speculative question.


RE: This sucks.
By JasonMick (blog) on 3/17/2011 6:01:29 PM , Rating: 5
If you watch the actual video (linked) of the John King interview it almost borders on being comical.

It's clear he's going to keep trying to ask Dr. Gupta rephrased questions until he claims there to be a danger.

He pauses midway through his sentence, seemingly forgetting how long Dr. Gupta said it would take to get a year's worth of "average" exposure. Then, without finishing his sentence, he begins to ask if there'd be a risk after "...", pauses and just suddenly throws out the figure "seven months".

It's kind a new twist on the old "How do you feel about people saying you beat your wife?" logical fallacy. You keep asking the same question in a more and more extreme fashion until you hear the phrase you're looking for.


RE: This sucks.
By bobny1 on 3/17/11, Rating: -1
RE: This sucks.
By Dorkyman on 3/18/2011 5:47:22 PM , Rating: 3
Brest...isn't that a city in France?

It would help your case if you cite actual statistics.

From what I've read, there have not been very many radiation-caused cancer deaths (outside of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). None for Three Mile Island. Some deaths from Chernobyl, but that reactor was a completely different design and almost behaved like a "dirty bomb" when it melted down.


RE: This sucks.
By retrospooty on 3/18/2011 9:24:45 AM , Rating: 2
bah... CNN sold their soul years ago. Now they are more concerned with ratings and opinions than actual facts or news.


RE: This sucks.
By Moishe on 3/18/2011 3:48:31 PM , Rating: 2
I would agree, but their ratings suck.... and they still toe the liberal line... so I guess their ideaology (religion) comes first.


RE: This sucks.
By gamerk2 on 3/18/2011 10:02:47 AM , Rating: 1
quote:
This seemed to throw Wolf a bit off track. He seemed to be a bit lost as to what to do since the interviewee had just refuted the lead-in they were running on. He then spent the next 5 minutes essentially asking the same question over and over, phrased slightly differently each time, trying to get the ambassador to say that there was a meltdown, or even admit that it might possibly turn into a meltdown.


To be fair, isn't asking if theres a possibility of a meltdown a valid question?


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