Where public-health policy is concerned, it makes sense to be conservative. But when we try too hard, we may actually do more harm than good. An egregious example is our policy on low-level ionizing radiation, primarily gamma rays and neutrons. Regulations are based on the premise that any amount of radiation, however small, must be considered hazardous. This premise was not derived scientifically, and the policy based on it is not conservative but is actually detrimental to public health.

Illustration: John Overmeyer
Fear of harmless amounts of radiation has created situations that are directly inimical to health. Examples: More than 100,000 European women chose to have unnecessary abortions after the Chernobyl accident out of a groundless fear of bearing "nuclear mutants." Thousands of people die needlessly each year from pathogens infecting beef, poultry, eggs, and seafood that could easily be sterilized by irradiation. Thousands more die each year from breathing...

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