George Monbiot’s prostate cancer
and a Scientific Revolution

a statement from Richard Bramhall, Company Secretary of the Low Level Radiation Campaign

Prostate cancer used to be an old man's disease but George Monbiot has been diagnosed with it at the age of only 55. George, who has made a career out of being controversial, has gone very public about his cancer. In 2011 he used his public platform at The Guardian to attack the Low Level Radiation Campaign's work on the health effects of radioactivity in the environment. I would not wish cancer on anyone and I hope he makes a good recovery but it's fair to draw relevant lessons; there are important implications for public policy and public health.

George was born just as the Cold War above-ground nuclear bomb testing came to a climax along with the inevitable radioactive fallout - an episode which has been of great concern to many researchers including LLRC. This graph shows three phenomena which all peaked around the time when George was born.

graph of first day neonatal mortality from R K Whyte study with strontium fallout in bone and milk

It's from a paper recently published in the scientific literature [footnote 1] and is based on graphs in a 1992 paper by Robin Whyte, a Canadian paediatrician. The spiky red and blue lines show Strontium-90 in bone and milk as measured by the UK authorities. The black diamonds represent annual rates of babies who died within 24 hours of birth. The smooth curved line shows the long-term trend of improvement in infant mortality, from 15 per 1000 live births in 1936 falling to 4 per 1000 by 1987. This downward trend can be relied on because it starts in the late 19th Century when mortality was much higher. Rates had improved steadily, uninterrupted by two world wars, as medical and public health measures increased babies' chances of surviving. The graph above is for first-day mortality in the USA; Whyte also showed data for the same phenomenon in UK, together with stillbirths and first-month mortality for USA and UK separately. All six measures show the same disturbance in the trend. Whyte disproved the idea advanced by Cross, that the deaths were caused by a change in clinical practice, and concluded that fallout was the likeliest explanation. Ernest Sternglass calculated that 400,000 babies had been lost.

But the dead and unborn babies are not the whole story. In 2016 a review of serious genetic effects after Chernobyl demonstrated a startling 10,000-fold error in official risk estimates of genetic effects from low dose internal exposures. Also, the genetic defects did not show a linear relationship with dose. The World Health Organisation [footnote 2] had noted the same thing in 2006 without attempting to explain it, and nuclear apologists use it to suggest that radiation cannot be to blame. This is a mistake; if an exposure to radiation is enough to cause genetic damage - a deformed limb or Down syndrome for example - a larger exposure may be enough to kill the foetuses instead. Looking at smaller exposures, live babies who were born without visible defects may be carrying genetic damage that is only now being expressed. George's cohort is now old enough to be counting how many of their school-friends are getting cancer.

graphs of prostate cancer England and Wales age 50 to 59 and 70 to 79 from 1974 to 2015

The graphs above show official UK data for prostate cancer. The youngest age group has the greatest proportional increase - 1130% over the whole period. In the 55 - 60 year olds it increased by 1020%; in the 70 - 74 group by 260% and in 75 - 79 year-olds by 330%.

The people born over the peak fallout period have high risks of early cancer. It is also emerging that their children, born around 1980-1990, are carrying the same genetic (or rather genomic) damage as there is a sudden increase in cancer rates in young people aged 25-35 which began after 2008. The same is also happening with colon cancer in the USA; a paper published recently shows that colon cancer is increasing in young people though it is decreasing in older people. [footnote 3] The authors report that they are puzzled but the explanation is simple: the babies who were conceived during the weapons test fallout (George's cohort) have passed genomic damage to their own children. The effect is clear also in data for England and Wales. LLRC is supporting preparation of a scientific paper on this.

The target for genetic effects of an initial radiation exposure is an individual cell. The official view, based on the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) is that radiation doses from bomb fallout and nuclear power stations are far too low to cause observable health damage. LLRC's position is that "dose" as defined by ICRP is meaningless because it depends on the concept of absorbed dose - an average of the energy in ionising radiation [see footnote 4]. But Cold War bomb tests and the routine operation of nuclear power stations have spread myriad micron-sized particles of Plutonium and Uranium around the planet. Internal exposures following inhalation and ingestion deliver large numbers of radiation tracks to the small number of cells in their immediate vicinity. You cannot average the impact of inhaling and eating these microscopic radioactive particles any more than you can average the impact of stubbing out a cigar on a baby's face. This conceptual clash is a classic Scientific Revolution as described by Polanyi and Kuhn. I and colleagues have talked about it to the Westminster Government, to their radiation advisers COMARE, to the environment agencies, to Public Health England and to the nuclear industry:- all have reached a point of refusing to discuss these matters further. I have a stack of documentary evidence of their evasions and their irrelevant replies and false arguments and I'm writing a report, though it's unlikely that any of the culprits will ever admit to having read it.

George, I hope your operation has gone well and that you are recovering. Yes; really. I also hope this is a road to Damascus moment for you. Even after you came out in support of nuclear power you said you still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Well, the biggest lie of all is the ICRP concept of absorbed dose. It would be good to see your polemical talents deployed against that.

Finally, here is a link to our response to the unprovoked attack George Monbiot made in 2011, just after he came out as a supporter of nuclear power.

Footnote 1
Citation: Busby C (2017) Radiochemical Genotoxicity Risk and Absorbed Dose. Res Rep Toxi. Vol.1 No.1:1
- a free PDF download

Footnote 2
... there were statistically significantly less congenital abnormalities in the high contamination areas compared with low contamination areas ... p 86 of
WHO Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group "Health" Editors: Burton Bennett, Michael Repacholi, Zhanat Carr - a free PDF download

Footnote 3
Rebecca L. Siegel, Stacey A. Fedewa, William F. Anderson, Kimberly D. Miller, Jiemin Ma, Philip S. Rosenberg, Ahmedin Jemal Colorectal Cancer Incidence Patterns in the United States, 1974–2013 JNCI Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2017) 109(8): djw322

Footnote 4
Here's a piece on
how we got into this mess.