Radiation less risky than pollution or lifestyle

03 April 2007

Everyday air pollution may pose a bigger health risk than radiation exposure following a nuclear accident such as Chernobyl, according to a report comparing mortality risks from lifestyle factors with those from major nuclear incidents.

Factors such as obesity and smoking could also pose greater long-term risks than those faced by the survivors of the World War II atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to the report by Jim Smith of the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The report, Are passive smoking, air pollution and obesity a greater mortality risk than major radiation incidents?, finds an increased risk of mortality of 0.4-1.0% for Chernobyl emergency workers, while the increased mortality risk from air pollution for a resident of Central London is 2.8%. And if you are married to a smoker, beware! The increased mortality risk from passive smoking, for the partner of a smoking spouse, is 1.7%. The increased mortality risk to people living in the Chernobyl affected areas in the 1990s is estimated at 0.37%, while even for people returning to live unofficially within the 30 km exclusion zone imposed around the plant in the aftermath of the accident the increased mortality risk is estimated at 1.0%. (The study does not include the 134 people who received extremely high doses of radiation during the 1986 accident).

The study also finds that the effects of obesity on life expectancy are more extreme than radiation effects for survivors of the two atomic bombs.

"The risk to the individual from exposures following major radiation incidents is clearly significant, but may be no greater than that from other much more common environmental and lifestyle factors. This comparative analysis, whilst highlighting inevitable uncertainties in risk quantification and comparison, helps place the potential consequences of radiation exposures in the context of other public health risks," said Smith.

Further information

J TSmith, BMC Public Health: Are Passive Smoking, Air Pollution and Obesity a Greater Mortality Risk Than Major Radiation Incidents?

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Health Protection Agency

WNA: Radiation and nuclearenergy information paper