This paper has a dual purpose. On the one hand, congratulations are in order, the 25th Hanford Life Sciences Symposium celebrates four decades of important research at Hanford. This research has helped provide a better understanding of ionizing radiation effects on man and his environment. Researchers at Hanford and those at other locations can take pride in the fact that today we know more about the major characteristics and potential health effects of ionizing radiation than we do for any other biological hazard. Ionizing radiation's present mysteries, important as they are, involve subtleties that are difficult to explore in detail because the effects are so small relative to other health effects. It will also be a pleasure to add our tribute, along with many others, to Herb Parker, a friend, colleague, and pioneer in the radiation protection field. Building on the work of early pioneers such as Herb and those who have and will follow in their footsteps, we will develop an even broader understanding-an understanding that will clarify the effects of low-level radiation exposure, an area of knowledge about which sound explanations and predictions elude us today. The second purpose of this paper is to remind those in the radiation protection field that they have been less than successful in one of their most important tasks-that of effective communication. The task is not an easy one because the content of the message depends upon the dose. At high doses, above 1 Sv, where the deleterious effects of radiation are predictable, there is agreement on the message that must be delivered to the public: avoid it. There is no confusion in the public sector about this message. At the much lower doses resulting from beneficial activities, the message we must convey to the public is different. Unfortunately, the only message about radiation that the public seems to remember is “avoid it” We know the proper message is not being received when the medical profession resorts to using the term “magnetic resonance” in place of “nuclear magnetic resonance” because of public fear of the word “nuclear.” We know there's a problem when the public cringes because of a lead story in the press detailing an incident where people were exposed to a few microgray and when the linear hypothesis is used to predict hundreds of thousands of cancers from Chernobyl-related doses well below 0.01 Sv. These are but a few of the examples demonstrating that those in the field and those of us knowledgeable about such matters obviously have failed when it comes to public communication about radiation effects. This article will further explore our communication problems, suggest some possible causes and, perhaps, some potential remedies.
©1988Health Physics Society