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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Are passive smoking, air pollution and obesity a greater mortality risk than major radiation incidents?

Jim T Smith

Author Affiliations

Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Winfrith Technology Centre, Dorchester, Dorset DT2 8ZD, UK

BMC Public Health 2007, 7:49  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-49

Published: 3 April 2007

Abstract

Background

Following a nuclear incident, the communication and perception of radiation risk becomes a (perhaps the) major public health issue. In response to such incidents it is therefore crucial to communicate radiation health risks in the context of other more common environmental and lifestyle risk factors. This study compares the risk of mortality from past radiation exposures (to people who survived the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs and those exposed after the Chernobyl accident) with risks arising from air pollution, obesity and passive and active smoking.

Methods

A comparative assessment of mortality risks from ionising radiation was carried out by estimating radiation risks for realistic exposure scenarios and assessing those risks in comparison with risks from air pollution, obesity and passive and active smoking.

Results

The mortality risk to populations exposed to radiation from the Chernobyl accident may be no higher than that for other more common risk factors such as air pollution or passive smoking. Radiation exposures experienced by the most exposed group of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to an average loss of life expectancy significantly lower than that caused by severe obesity or active smoking.

Conclusion

Population-averaged risks from exposures following major radiation incidents are clearly significant, but may be no greater than those 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.