The EPA is pursuing rule changes that experts say would weaken the way radiation exposure is regulated, turning to scientific outliers who argue that a bit of radiation damage is actually good for you — like a little bit of sunlight.
The government's current, decades-old guidance says that any exposure to harmful radiation is a cancer risk. And critics say the proposed change could lead to higher levels of exposure for workers at nuclear installations and oil and gas drilling sites, medical workers doing X-rays and CT scans, people living next to Superfund sites and any members of the public who one day might find themselves exposed to a radiation release.
The Trump administration already has targeted a range of other regulations on toxins and pollutants, including coal power plant emissions and car exhaust, that it sees as costly and burdensome for businesses. Supporters of the EPA's proposal argue the government's current model that there is no safe level of radiation -- the so-called linear no-threshold model -- forces unnecessary spending for handling exposure in accidents, at nuclear plants, in medical centers and at other sites.
At issue is Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule on transparency in science.
EPA spokesman John Konkus said Tuesday, "The proposed regulation doesn't talk about radiation or any particular chemicals. And as we indicated in our response, EPA's policy is to continue to use the linear-no-threshold model for population-level radiation protection purposes which would not, under the proposed regulation that has not been finalized, trigger any change in that policy."
But in an April news release announcing the proposed rule the agency quoted Edward Calabrese, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts who has said weakening limits on radiation exposure would save billions of dollars and have a positive impact on human health.
The proposed rule would require regulators to consider "various threshold models across the exposure range" when it comes to dangerous substances. While it doesn't specify radiation, the release quotes Calabrese calling the proposal "a major scientific step forward" in assessing the risk of "chemicals and radiation."
Konkus said the release was written during the tenure of former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. He could not explain why Calabrese was quoted citing the impact on radiation levels if the agency does not believe there would be any.
Calabrese was to be the lead witness at a congressional hearing Wednesday on the EPA proposal.
Radiation is everywhere, from potassium in bananas to the microwaves popping our popcorn. Most of it is benign. But what's of concern is the higher-energy, shorter-wave radiation, like X-rays, that can penetrate and disrupt living cells, sometimes causing cancer.