Nonlinearity of radiation health effects

Environ Health Perspect. 1998 Feb;106 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):363-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.98106s1363.


The prime concern of radiation protection policy since 1959 has been to protect DNA from damage. In 1994 the United Nations Scientific Community on the Effects of Atomic Radiation focused on biosystem response to radiation with its report Adaptive Responses to Radiation of Cells and Organisms. The 1995 National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements report Principles and Application of Collective Dose in Radiation Protection states that because no human data provides direct support for the linear nonthreshold hypothesis (LNT), confidence in LNT is based on the biophysical concept that the passage of a single charged particle could cause damage to DNA that would result in cancer. Several statistically significant epidemiologic studies contradict the validity of this concept by showing risk decrements, i.e., hormesis, of cancer mortality and mortality from all causes in populations exposed to low-dose radiation. Unrepaired low-dose radiation damage to DNA is negligible compared to metabolic damage. The DNA damage-control biosystem is physiologically operative on both metabolic and radiation damage and effected predominantly by free radicals. The DNA damage-control biosystem is suppressed by high dose and stimulated by low-dose radiation. The hormetic effect of low-dose radiation may be explained by its increase of biosystem efficiency. Improved DNA damage control reduces persistent mis- or unrepaired DNA damage i.e., the number of mutations that accumulate during a lifetime. This progressive accumulation of gene mutations in stem cells is associated with decreasing DNA damage control, aging, and malignancy. Recognition of the positive health effects produced by adaptive responses to low-dose radiation would result in a realistic assessment of the environmental risk of radiation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA Damage
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation*
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced
  • Nuclear Warfare