Anti-nuclear activist Jay M. Gould Died at age ninety, Friday one week ago. I was surprised, in a good way, that the New York Times obituatry gave attention to the criticism his work attracted. Obituaries, the first draft of the history of a person's life, usually offer generous views on the recently deceased. But New York Times science writer Anahad O'Connor appropriately addressed the flaws in Dr. Gould's work.
O'Connor quoted Brookhaven scientist Jean Howard from a letter published in the New York Times: "There is no evidence in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that would support his hypothesis" (that very low levels of radiation present a threat to human health).
Indeed, in a report released today by ACSH, the conclusion is the same -- that low levels of radiation do not present a risk to human health, and that the background level of radiation, from sunlight and other sources, exceeds the level of exposure from man-made sources.
Dr. Gould was perhaps best known for his 1985 "Tooth Fairy Project," which collected baby teeth to measure traces of strontium, a radioactive substance. It was an effort to show that children living near nuclear power plants were at risk of dangerous levels of nuclear radiation. The Tooth Fairy Project was perhaps a precursor to today's buzz over biomonitoring, another effort that reports exposure levels but by itself does not indicate risk (when very low levels of exposure are involved).
Dr. Michael Stabin, Assistant Professor of Radiology and Radiological Sciences at Vanderbilt University, agrees. "The Tooth Fairy project was a clearly disingenuous project run by folks with anti-nuclear agendas, nothing more." As with the results from biomonitoring, it is not the measurements that are the problem but the conclusions drawn from the data. Says Dr. Stabin, "Their radioanalytical procedures are sound, but the entire premise of the project is false. There are trace amounts of strontium everywhere, particularly in bones and teeth. These folks are trying to scare the public, generate lawsuits that hurt the industry, and give the industry some bad press."
So kudos to the Times for recognizing the problems with Dr. Gould's activism dressed up as science. We hope the Times continues this critical reporting on the living activists it covers, too. Because if you believe in all the scares reported in the media today, you'd also believe in the tooth fairy.
Editor's note: This week also brought word that new EU radiation regulations, set to become law in 2008, are so strict that they would inhibit use of medical procedures such as MRI scans, alarming doctors. Being overcautious has negative consequences for health.