Wolfgang Weiss, UNSCEAR, Germany

“Every amount of radiation can cause cancer”

Wolfgang Weiss is a member of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) and was its chairperson in 2011 and 2012. Until his retirement in 2014, the physicist was head of the Department of Radiation Protection and Health of the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection.

“You don’t have to pass any threshold to enter the danger zone of radioactive radiation. This means that even the smallest amount of radiation can cause cancer. But even if we must assume this, we still can't prove that a disease in question has anything to do with the low exposure to artificial radiation that someone received in his or her lifetime. We are all exposed to a natural background radiation, which can sometimes be higher and other times lower. When you add an artificial source of radiation, for example as a result of a nuclear accident, it increases the risk of developing cancer. But it's only when this radiation exceeds a certain level that can we actually measure this risk in the form of increased hospital admissions. Anything below that disappears in a statistical noise. This means that we no longer can make reliable statements about whether a connection actually exists. In Fukushima, a young mother asked me if it’s dangerous for her small child to live in a zone now declared safe. She had planned to move to a different part of the country. There, the natural background radiation is higher than in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster, and therefore the risk greater of developing cancer. I could only provide the woman with advice from a statistical perspective when it came to her child’s risk of cancer. But this of course doesn’t go far enough. It’s much more important to explain to people how they should deal with these risks. This could mean not eating mushrooms or not residing in certain areas.”

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