Problems in Assessing the Cancer Risks of Low-Level Ionizing Radiation Exposure

EMD-81-1: Published: Jan 2, 1981. Publicly Released: Jan 2, 1981.

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Public concern about the health effects of low-level ionizing radiation exposure has increased in recent years. Therefore, GAO undertook a study to determine what definite conclusions, if any, can be drawn from current scientific knowledge about the cancer risks of low-level ionizing radiation exposure and what conclusions can be drawn about the best direction for current and future federal research. The immediate goal of the federal research program is to develop a database for estimating the risk of low-level radiation exposure. The long-term goal is to understand the mechanisms and processes of how radiation causes cancer. Data from two studies involving low-level radiation were analyzed; a literature search was conducted; and the current status of ionizing radiation research was reviewed.

As yet, there is no way to determine precisely the cancer risks of low-level ionizing radiation exposure, and it is unlikely that this question will be resolved soon. There is a continuing need for federally sponsored research in this area, and GAO believes that federal research efforts can be strengthened. It also agrees with the objectives of current congressional and executive branch initiatives to coordinate federal research efforts in this area. The Interagency Radiation Research Committee, recently formed by Presidential memorandum, is such an important area that GAO believes a federal interagency research review group should be created by legislation. Epidemiologists have used estimates of the number of cancers induced by high-level exposures to radiation to predict the numbers that may be induced by lower exposures. These predictions can vary widely depending on which of several mathematical equations is used. An intensive effort to synthesize the results of radiation research might be accomplished by developing quantitative theories of radiation carcinogenesis and critically testing their predictions with cellular and animal experiments.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has not acted on the specific legislation this past session and all indications point to a low priority of future involvement.

    Matter: Congress should enact legislation giving statutory authority to an interagency committee to coordinate federal research on the health effects of ionizing radiation exposure.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No interagency committee has ever been formed.

    Recommendation: The Interagency Radiation Research Committee should consider carefully and initiate actions to implement recommendations in the June 1979 report of the Interagency Task Force, in particular: (1) encourage expansion in the number of scientists and institutions performing the research, and ensure that scientists of high quality are funded, (2) have the National Institute of Health and other agencies provide more of the fiscal support for the national laboratories, thereby giving them more access to the laboratories, and (3) ensure that a diversity of federal agencies continue to fund research, particularly in high priority research areas.

    Agency Affected: Interagency Radiation Research Committee

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No interagency committee has ever been formed.

    Recommendation: The Interagency Radiation Research Committee should ensure that the cognizant federal agencies continue to conduct a limited number of high-quality animal experiments, including those analyzing the metabolism and toxicity of radionuclides in beagle dogs and small-scale experiments to investigate radiation mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Interagency Radiation Research Committee

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No interagency committee has ever been formed.

    Recommendation: The Interagency Radiation Research Committee should ensure that the cognizant federal agencies continue to conduct epidemiological studies of groups, such as the Japanese atom bomb survivors, the uranium miners, and the radium dial painters, that offer large numbers of people and a range of radiation exposure doses.

    Agency Affected: Interagency Radiation Research Committee

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No interagency committee has ever been formed.

    Recommendation: The Interagency Radiation Research Committee should, because of limited funding, ensure that epidemiological studies involving primarily low levels of ionizing radiation exposure are of sufficient scientific merit to justify the costs of long-term follow-up efforts.

    Agency Affected: Interagency Radiation Research Committee

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: No interagency committee has ever been formed.

    Recommendation: The Interagency Radiation Research Committee should ensure, in research on ionizing radiation exposure, that increased priority and emphasis are given to studying the mechanisms of how radiation causes cancer, through molecular and cellular studies and other fundamental research.

    Agency Affected: Interagency Radiation Research Committee

 

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