June 16, 2022

Report: U.S. Needs Low-Dose Radiation Exposure Research Program

A new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine calls for the development of and lays out research priorities for a nationally coordinated research program to study the effects of low doses of radiation on human health. According to the National Academies’ June 2 press release, this program, estimated to cost $100 million annually over 15 years, should conduct epidemiological and biological research and establish research infrastructure to ascertain how low-dose radiation exposures affect risks of health conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, immune dysfunction, and cataracts. Radiation exposures at doses of less than 100 milligray or dose rates of less than 5 milligray per hour occur “in a wide range of medical, industrial, military, and commercial settings,” the National Academies note. The effects of exposures at these levels are not well understood, but the report explains that there are “longstanding concerns” that they could negatively affect human health.

“Concerns about the health effects of low doses of radiation raise questions as to whether the public and workers are adequately protected from exposures from medical diagnostics procedures such as CT scans, legacy exposures from nuclear weapons production and nuclear waste management, and new sources of exposure such as rare earth element and lithium mining,” the National Academies states in its press release.

The highlights document (PDF) provided for the report characterizes existing programs to study the effects of low-dose radiation exposures in the U.S. as “limited and fragmented, and lack[ing] leadership and an overarching prioritized strategic research agenda.” The document explains that a program such as the one proposed by National Academies “can improve understanding of adverse human health effects from exposures to radiation at doses and dose rates of relevance to the U.S. population,” potentially leading to more accurate risk assessments and better regulatory guidance. The National Academies’ recommended priorities for epidemiological research, radiation biology research, and research infrastructure are also summarized in the highlights document.

The National Academies’ press release adds that this program would extend beyond any government agency’s present capabilities, involving coordination between federal agencies and national and international partners. The organizations suggest a combined effort by the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health to lead the program.

The complete report may be read or downloaded for free at the National Academies website.