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People have unreasonable fears of radiation, physicist says

March 14, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times
  • Children from near the Fukushima No. 2 reactor are checked for radiation.
Children from near the Fukushima No. 2 reactor are checked for radiation. (Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters )

The threat of a major nuclear accident -- which is occurring now in Japan -- is alarming to people because of our tendency to fear radiation in all of its degrees and forms, said Jerrold Bushberg, a medical physicist at UC Davis.

In an interview Saturday, Bushberg noted that Americans don't have a particularly good grasp of the science of radiation and tend to over-exaggerate the risks. Debates over the safety of exposure from radiofrequency waves emitted by cellphones and high-power lines is an example of how worried people are, he said.

"I think anything that has radiation associated with it conjures up in people's mind -- either consciously or subconsciously -- fears of everything from nuclear weapons and nuclear reactor accidents like Chernerbol," he said.

Movies and TV shows tend to portray radiation in a decidedly non-scientific way, which can shape attitudes about radiation. In cartoons, characters from Spider-Man to Ninja Turtles are transformed by radiation exposure.

"As children you get this message that radiation can do odd and mysterious things -- most of it not good," he noted.

Related: Radiation, nuclear emergencies and health risks: It's (past) time to learn the basics

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