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Semin Nucl Med. 1986 Jul;16(3):158-70.

Perception of radiation hazards.


The health risks of radiation have been carefully studied and are relatively well understood in comparison with other risks to the human environment. Public perception of these risks often is distorted, due in part to lack of familiarity with the actual risk levels involved. There is a need for dissemination to the public of accurate information on radiation risks as well as to patients and volunteer subjects for studies involving radiation exposures. Often such information can be presented meaningfully by comparing the risks of radiation exposure with other, more familiar risks. Natural background radiation is a universally present and generally accepted source of risk, and thus serves as one reference against which to compare the risks of other radiation exposures. Natural background radiation averages about 100 mrem/yr, but much higher levels are encountered in some parts of the US (400 mrem/yr) and worldwide (2,000 mrem/yr). These variations are due primarily to differences in cosmic ray intensity with altitude and in terrestrial radiation originating from soil and rocks. Radiation risks also may be compared with the risks of other human activities, both voluntary and involuntary. The former are useful for comparisons with the risks of voluntary radiation exposures such as occupational exposure and participation in medical or research procedures involving radiation. Involuntary radiation exposure, such as might result from the transportation and disposal of radioactive waste, poses a more complicated issue. Comparisons of such exposures to natural background radiation levels and their variations are helpful. Two other concepts that have been proposed for assessing the relative risk of low-level radiation exposure are "de minimus risk" and "probability of causation." The former suggests that there is some minimal level of involuntary risk that can be considered acceptable, provided it carries with it some benefit to society or the individual. The latter is a concept that has been introduced in legislation to decide compensation for alleged injuries from radiation exposures.

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