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Toxicity’s Curious Workings

Thursday, 26 May 2011 12:04 PM


Most of the general public had never heard of the phenomenon of hormesis until conservative political pundit Ann Coulter wrote about it in a column following the Japanese nuclear disaster. And I have to admit she did a fairly good job in presenting the case for radiation hormesis. So, you are probably asking, what is hormesis?

It used to be assumed that toxic compounds were toxic at all concentrations, and that this toxicity was linear — that is, the toxicity started at a certain level and got worse as the concentration increased. At the time, that made sense, and so this idea was taught in all toxicology textbooks.

Every so often, however, one would see studies that seemed to defy common sense. It appeared that at low concentrations, compounds that should be toxic actually seemed beneficial. (This was true for radiation as well.)

The phenomenon of low concentrations of toxins being beneficial while higher concentrations were harmful was labeled “hormesis.” It has changed much of our thinking concerning toxic substances.

But why would low concentrations of a toxin behave the opposite of high concentrations? As we began to learn more about how cells work, it was realized that all cells have a complex set of defense mechanisms that spring into action when the cell is stressed by a toxin.

Once activated, these defense mechanisms make the cell stronger, and collectively make a person more resistant to other toxins and injuries. This process was also found for exposure to radiation, and may explain how the earth’s background radiation (which is quite low) helps make us stronger.

Dr. Alexander Vaiserman of the National Academy of Ukraine makes a convincing case for the beneficial effects of chronic, low-dose radiation exposures in a review of the studies done on radiation hormesis. He notes that soon after the discovery of radioactivity, it was widely believed that radiation had many health benefits.

Between 1925 and 1930, over 400,000 bottles of distilled water containing radium-226 and radium-228 were sold as a health elixir to treat more than 150 maladies. But the 1932 death of Pittsburgh millionaire Eben Byers from radium poisoning caused by regular drinking of the radioactive concoction stopped the practice of “radium therapy.”

Scientists later discovered that many plants and animals exposed to low-dose radiation lived longer, were healthier, and seemed to be more resistant to what have always been considered radiation-related diseases, such as cancer.

They did, however, find that the beneficial dose of radiation was often very close to the harmful dose, and could vary from animal to animal. Multiple attempts were made to examine the effect of chronic exposure to low-dose radiation in humans by examining radiologists, nuclear power plant workers, and survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But the reports were conflicting, with some showing reduced cancer rates and overall mortality in those exposed to lower levels of radiation, and others showing increased incidences of several cancers, including leukemias and breast cancers.

Recent studies have shown that chronic exposure to low levels of radiation does increase genetic instability and the incidence of cancer, not only in exposed people, but in their children as well. We know that radiation hormesis is quite weak in many people.

For example, millions have either inherited defects or acquired a defect in DNA repair enzymes, which makes them infinitely more susceptible to the effects of radiation. Likewise, people with poor diets, chronic diseases, or who are simultaneously exposed to other toxins, such as pesticides and herbicides or industrial chemicals and metals, have less resistance to radiation than young healthy people. This includes millions of people, of course.

So how can we explain the studies that show a beneficial effect of exposure to low levels of radiation? Most such studies are older and are heavily flawed because they overlooked certain factors that might give a false impression. For example, people with a healthy diet might have ended up in the radiation group, or it might have included people who were less exposed to other toxins. There are many other factors that could have given this false impression.

In the early days of X-ray use, women who were exposed to X-rays during their pregnancy had children with a much higher incidence of leukemia. Young girls with scoliosis of the spine treated with X-rays had a significantly higher incidence of breast cancer when they became adults, and children with ringworm of the scalp treated with X-rays had a higher incidence of brain tumors and thyroid cancers.

Twenty years after the Chernobyl disaster, children from areas of the contamination developed a much higher incidence of thyroid cancer and continue to do so today.
For more information on fighting all types of cancer, read my special report "Prevent Cancer Before It's Too Late. ''

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