Low doses of radiation in nature may pose more risk

NEW YORK, NY Radiation can trigger widespread mutations in living cells at much lower doses than the amount scientists previously believed could do such damage, according to findings from a study by Columbia researchers. The research may help public health officials reconsider what levels of radiation in nature should be deemed safe.

Led by professor of radiation oncology and public health Dr. Tom K. Hei, the study found that a dose that strikes as few as one in 10 cells has nearly the same mutagenic (mutation-causing) effect as a dose that strikes every cell. The added damage occurs, the researchers say, because of what is called the bystander effect, in which injured cells send aberrant signals to neighboring cells. The study is to be published in the Dec. 4th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The researchers found the bystander effect occurs with alpha particles, a common type of radiation that comes from sources such as nuclear explosions, plutonium, and radon, a naturally occurring gas that seeps into many homes.

In the National Cancer Institute-funded study, the researchers beamed a single alpha particle through the nuclei of randomly selected cells growing in petri dishes. Alpha particles consist of the nuclei, or cores, of helium atoms. The radiation was equivalent to a dose below 20 centiGrays.

A centiGray is a unit used in radiation measurement. The radiation employed in the study is considered low-level. Mine workers are occasionally exposed to such levels of radiation. People in radon-contaminated homes are rarely exposed to these levels. The risks of exposure to lower radiation levels are poorly understood and have been the subject of controversy for decades.

In the study, the researchers found that when they beamed alpha particles at only one in 10 cells, the results were almost the same as if they had be

Contact: Annie Bayne
Columbia University Medical Center

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