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Radiation need not be feared, but it must command your respect.
Health physics poster exhorting respect for—rather than fear of—radiation. (ORNL, 1947)

Radiophobia is a fear of ionizing radiation. Examples include health patients refusing X-rays because they believe the radiation will kill them, such as Steve Jobs and Bob Marley who both died after refusing radiation treatment for their cancer.[1][2] Given that significant doses of radiation are harmful, even deadly (i.e. radiation-induced cancer, and acute radiation syndrome) it is reasonable to fear high doses of radiation. The term is also used to describe the opposition to the use of nuclear technology (i.e. nuclear power) arising from concerns disproportionately greater than actual risks would merit.

Early use[edit]

The term was used in a paper entitled "Radio-phobia and radio-mania" presented by Dr Albert Soiland of Los Angeles in 1903.[3] In the 1920s, the term was used to describe people who were afraid of radio broadcasting and receiving technology.[4][5] In 1931, radiophobia was referred to in The Salt Lake Tribune as a "fear of loudspeakers",[6] an affliction that Joan Crawford was reported as suffering.[7] The term "radiophobia" was also printed in Australian newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s, assuming a similar meaning.[8] The 1949 poem by Margarent Mercia Baker entitled "Radiophobia" laments the intrusion of advertising into radio broadcasts.[9] The term remained in use with its original association with radios and radio broadcasting during the 1940s[10] and 1950s.[11]

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Science Service associated the term with fear of gamma radiation and the medical use of x-rays.[12][13] A Science Service article published in several American newspapers proposed that "radiophobia" could be attributed to the publication of information regarding the "genetic hazards" of exposure to ionising radiation by the National Academy of Sciences in 1956.[14]

In a newspaper column published in 1970, Dr Harold Pettit MD wrote:

"A healthy respect for the hazards of radiation is desirable. When atomic testing began in the early 1950s, these hazards were grossly exaggerated, producing a new psychological disorder which has been called "radiophobia" or "nuclear neurosis".[15]

Castle Bravo and its influence on public perception[edit]

March 1, 1954, the operation Castle Bravo testing of a then, first of its kind, experimental thermonuclear Shrimp device, overshot its predicted yield of 4–6 megatons and instead produced 15 megatons; this resulted in an unanticipated amount of Bikini snow or visible particles of nuclear fallout being produced, fallout which caught the Japanese fishing boat the Daigo Fukuryū Maru or Lucky Dragon in its plume, even though it was fishing outside the initially predicted ~5 megaton fallout area which had been cordoned off for the Castle Bravo test. Approximately 2 weeks after the test and fallout exposure, the 23-member fishing crew began to fall ill, with acute radiation sickness, largely brought on by beta burns which were caused by direct contact between the Bikini snow fallout and their skin, through their practice of scooping the "Bikini snow" into bags with their bare hands. Kuboyama Aikichi, the boat's chief radioman, died 7 months later, on September 23, 1954.[16][17] It was later estimated that about a hundred fishing boats were contaminated to some degree by fallout from the test. Inhabitants of the Marshall Islands were also exposed to fallout, and a number of islands had to be evacuated.[17]

This incident, due to the era of secrecy around nuclear weapons, created widespread fear of uncontrolled and unpredictable nuclear weapons, and also of radioactively contaminated fish affecting the Japanese food supply. With the publication of Joseph Rotblat's findings that the contamination caused by the fallout from the Castle Bravo test was nearly a thousand times greater than that stated officially,[citation needed] outcry in Japan reached such a level that the incident was dubbed by some as "a second Hiroshima".[18] To prevent the subsequent strong anti-nuclear movement from turning into an anti-American movement,[citation needed] the Japanese and U.S. governments agreed on compensation of 2 million dollars[citation needed] for the contaminated fishery, with the surviving 22 crew men receiving about ¥ 2 million each[19][20] ($5,556 in 1954, $56,100 in 2023[21]).

The surviving crew members, and their family, would later experience prejudice and discrimination, as local people thought that radiation was contagious.[19]

In popular culture[edit]

The Castle Bravo test and the new fears of radioactive fallout inspired a new direction in art and cinema. The Godzilla films, beginning with Ishirō Honda's landmark 1954 film Gojira, are strong metaphors for post-war radiophobia. The opening scene of Gojira echoes the story of the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, from the initial distant flash of light to survivors being found with radiation burns. Although he found the special effects unconvincing, Roger Ebert stated that the film was "an important one" and "properly decoded, was the Fahrenheit 9/11 of its time."[22]

A year after the Castle Bravo test, Akira Kurosawa examined one person's unreasoning terror of radiation and nuclear war in his 1955 film I Live in Fear. At the end of the film, the foundry worker who lives in fear has been declared incompetent by his family, but the possible partial validity of his fears has transferred over to his doctor.

Nevil Shute's 1957 novel On the Beach depicts a future just six years later, based on the premise that a nuclear war has released so much radioactive fallout that all life in the Northern Hemisphere has been killed. The novel is set in Australia, which, along with the rest of the Southern Hemisphere, awaits a similar and inevitable fate. Helen Caldicott describes reading the novel in adolescence as 'a formative event' in her becoming part of the anti-nuclear movement.[23]

Radiophobia and Chernobyl[edit]

In the former Soviet Union many patients with negligible radioactive exposure after the Chernobyl disaster displayed extreme anxiety about low level radiation exposure,[24][25] and therefore developed many psychosomatic problems, with an increase in fatalistic alcoholism also being observed. As Japanese health and radiation specialist Shunichi Yamashita noted:[26]

We know from Chernobyl that the psychological consequences are enormous. Life expectancy of the evacuees dropped from 65 to 58 years -- not [predominately] because of cancer, but because of depression, alcoholism and suicide. Relocation is not easy, the stress is very big. We must not only track those problems, but also treat them. Otherwise people will feel they are just guinea pigs in our research.

The term "radiation phobia syndrome" was introduced in 1987.[27] by L. A. Ilyin and O. A. Pavlovsky in their report "Radiological consequences of the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union and measures taken to mitigate their impact".[28]

The author of Chernobyl Poems Lyubov Sirota[29] wrote in her poem "Radiophobia":

Is this only—a fear of radiation?

Perhaps rather—a fear of wars?
Perhaps—the dread of betrayal,

Cowardice, stupidity, lawlessness?

The term has been criticized by Adolph Kharash, Science Director at the Moscow State University because, he writes,

It treats the normal impulse to self-protection, natural to everything living, your moral suffering, your anguish and your concern about the fate of your children, relatives and friends, and your own physical suffering and sickness as a result of delirium, of pathological perversion[30]

However, the psychological phobia of radiation in sufferers may not coincide with an actual life-threatening exposure to an individual or their children. Radiophobia refers only to a display of anxiety disproportionate to the actual quantity of radiation one is exposed to, with, in many cases, radiation exposure values equal to, or not much higher than, that which individuals are naturally exposed to every day from background radiation. Anxiety following a response to an actual life-threatening level of exposure to radiation is not considered to be radiophobia, nor misplaced anxiety, but a normal, appropriate response.

Marvin Goldman is an American doctor who provided commentary to newspapers claiming that radiophobia had taken a larger toll than the fallout itself had, and that radiophobia was to blame.[31]

Chernobyl abortions[edit]

Following the accident, journalists mistrusted many medical professionals (such as the spokesman from the UK National Radiological Protection Board), and in turn encouraged the public to mistrust them.[32]

Throughout the European continent, in nations where abortion is legal, many requests for induced abortions, of otherwise normal pregnancies, were obtained out of fears of radiation from Chernobyl; including an excess number of abortions of healthy human fetuses in Denmark in the months following the accident.[33]

As the increase in radiation in Denmark was so low that almost no increased risk of birth defects was expected, the public debate and anxiety among the pregnant women and their husbands "caused" more fetal deaths in Denmark than the accident. This underlines the importance of public debate, the role of the mass media and of the way in which National Health authorities participate in this debate.

In Greece, following the accident there was panic and false rumors which led to many obstetricians initially thinking it prudent to interrupt otherwise wanted pregnancies and/or were unable to resist requests from worried pregnant mothers over fears of radiation, within a few weeks misconceptions within the medical profession were largely cleared up, although worries persisted in the general population. Although it was determined that the effective dose to Greeks would not exceed 1 mSv (0.1 rem), a dose much lower than that which could induce embryonic abnormalities or other non-stochastic effects, there was an observed 2500 excess of otherwise wanted pregnancies being terminated, probably out of fear in the mother of some kind of perceived radiation risk.[34]

A "slightly" above the expected number of requested induced abortions occurred in Italy, where upon request, "a week of reflection" and then a 2 to 3 week "health system" delay usually occur before the procedure.[35][36]

Radiophobia and health effects[edit]

"My former colleague, William Clark, has likened the public’s frenzy over small environmental insults to the fear of witches in the later Middle Ages. Some million certified “witches” were executed because they could not prove that they had not caused harm to someone or something. In the same way, since one cannot prove that tiny amounts of radiation did not cause a particular leukemia—for that matter one cannot prove that they caused it either—those who wish to succumb to low-level phobia succumb. As a result nuclear energy […is] under siege. Not until the low–level controversy is resolved can we expect nuclear energy to be fully accepted."

Alvin M. Weinberg[37]

The term "radiophobia" is also sometimes used in the arguments against proponents of the conservative LNT concept (Linear no-threshold response model for ionizing radiation) of radiation security proposed by the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) in 1949. The "no-threshold" position effectively assumes, from data extrapolated from the atomic bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that even negligible doses of radiation increase ones risk of cancer linearly as the exposure increases from a value of 0 up to high dose rates. The LNT model therefore suggests that radiation exposure from naturally occurring background radiation may be harmful.[38] There is no biological evidence and weak statistical evidence that doses below 100 mSv have any biological effect.[39]

After the Fukushima disaster, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Japanese residents were suffering from radiophobia.[26] British medical scientist Geraldine Thomas has also attributed suffering of the Japanese to radiophobia in interviews and formal presentations.[40] Four years after the event The New York Times reported that ″about 1,600 people died from the stress of the evacuation″. The forced evacuation of 154,000 people ″was not justified by the relatively moderate radiation levels″, but it was ordered because ″the government basically panicked″.[41]

At the same time as part of the public fears radiation, some commercial products are also promoted on the basis of their radioactive content, such as "negative ion" bracelets or radon spas.

Radiophobia and industrial and healthcare use[edit]

Radiation, most commonly in the form of X-rays, is used frequently in society in order to produce positive outcomes. The primary use of radiation in healthcare is in the use of radiography for radiographic examination or procedure, and in the use of radiotherapy in the treatment of cancerous conditions. Radiophobia can be a fear which patients experience before and after either of these procedures,[42] it is therefore the responsibility of the healthcare professional at the time, often a Radiographer or Radiation Therapist, to reassure the patients about the stochastic and deterministic effects of radiation on human physiology. Advising patients and other irradiated persons of the various radiation protection measures that are enforced, including the use of lead-rubber aprons, dosimetry and Automatic Exposure Control (AEC) is a common method of informing and reassuring radiophobia sufferers.

Similarly, in industrial radiography there is the possibility of persons to experience radiophobia when radiophobia sufferers are near industrial radiographic equipment.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Walton, Alice G. "Steve Jobs' Cancer Treatment Regrets". Forbes. Retrieved 2022-03-30.
  2. ^ "The Tribune". 2011-04-17. Archived from the original on 17 April 2011. Retrieved 2022-03-30.
  3. ^ "Medicos meet (radiophobia) (1903)". The Los Angeles Times. 1903-06-03. p. 11. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  4. ^ "Radio show big success (1926)". The Republic. 1926-10-27. p. 2. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  5. ^ "Radio fans storm annual convention and show here (1922)". The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 1922-03-08. p. 4. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  6. ^ "Have you a phobia? (1931)". The Salt Lake Tribune. 1931-12-13. p. 55. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  7. ^ "Little theater is a recording room (radiophobia) (1937)". Portsmouth Daily Times. 1937-07-18. p. 10. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  8. ^ "Radio manners. For the people who live next door- to the wireless. (1935)". The Sydney Morning Herald. 1935-04-16. p. 31. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  9. ^ "YOU SAID IT... - Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1926 - 1954) - 4 Sep 1949". Trove. Retrieved 2017-04-22.
  10. ^ "Radiophobia (1947)". The Morning Herald. 1947-10-14. p. 6. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  11. ^ "Athletic director has radiophobia (1959)". Southern Illinoisan. 1959-01-01. p. 9. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  12. ^ "Many American claimed suffering from radiophobia (1959)". Medford Mail Tribune. 1959-12-17. p. 25. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  13. ^ "Unwarranted fear (radiophobia) (1968)". Lebanon Daily News. 1968-02-19. p. 4. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  14. ^ "Unwarranted Fear (radiophobia) (1960)". The Times. 1960-02-22. p. 14. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  15. ^ "X-Rays Demand Respect (1970)". Aiken Standard. 1970-01-01. p. 10. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  16. ^[dead link]
  17. ^ a b Lorna Arnold and Mark Smith. (2006). Britain, Australia and the Bomb, Palgrave Press.
  18. ^ Keever, Beverly Deepe (February 25, 2004). "Shot in the Dark". Honolulu Weekly. Archived from the original on August 28, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-30. The Japanese government and people dubbed it "a second Hiroshima" and it nearly led to severing diplomatic relations.
  19. ^ a b Keiji Hirano (Feb 29, 2004). "Bikini Atoll H-bomb damaged fisheries, created prejudice". chugoku. Retrieved 2008-11-30.
  20. ^ Gerard DeGroot, The Bomb: A Life, Random House, 2004.
  21. ^ On 25 April 1949 the US dollar was pegged to the YEN at $USD 1 = 360 YEN
  22. ^ Chicago Sun-Times
  23. ^ "Nuclear radiation 'the greatest public health hazard'". CNN. 25 March 2011. Retrieved 9 December 2014.
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  25. ^ "Need to alert Chernobyl-area residents of cancer threat debated (1988)". The San Bernardino County Sun. 1988-05-14. p. 4. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  26. ^ a b "Studying the Fukushima Aftermath: 'People Are Suffering from Radiophobia'". Der Spiegel. 19 August 2011.
  27. ^ Bella Belbéoch, RESPONSABILITES OCCIDENTALES DANS LES CONSEQUENCES SANITAIRES DE LA CATASTROPHE DE TCHERNOBYL, EN BIELORUSSIE, UKRAINE ET RUSSIE, in: Radioprotection et Droit nucléaire [eds.: Ivo Rens and, Joël Jakubec, collection SEBES, 1998, pp. 247-261 (English translation: "Western responsibility regarding the health consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe in Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia" Archived 2011-07-26 at the Wayback Machine)
  28. ^ L. A. Ilyin and O. A. Pavlovsky,"Radiological consequences of the Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union and measures taken to mitigate their impact" IAEA Bulletin 4/1987.
  29. ^ "The Chernobyl Poems of Lyubov Sirota"
  30. ^ "A Voice from Dead Pripyat" by Adolph Kharash Science Director, Moscow State University Archived 2010-05-28 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ "Chernobyl Aftereffects Mostly Psychological (radiophobia) (1988)". Daily Sitka Sentinel. 1988-12-19. p. 2. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  32. ^ Kasperson, Roger E.; Stallen, Pieter Jan M. (1991). Communicating Risks to the Public: International Perspectives. Berlin: Springer Science and Media. pp. 160–162. ISBN 0-7923-0601-5.
  33. ^ Knudsen, LB (1991). "Legally induced abortions in Denmark after Chernobyl". Biomed Pharmacother. 45 (6): 229–31. doi:10.1016/0753-3322(91)90022-l. PMID 1912378.
  34. ^ Trichopoulos D, Zavitsanos X, Koutis C, Drogari P, Proukakis C, Petridou E (1987). "The victims of chernobyl in Greece: induced abortions after the accident". Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 295 (6606): 1100. doi:10.1136/bmj.295.6606.1100. PMC 1248180. PMID 3120899.
  35. ^ Parazzini F, Repetto F, Formigaro M, Fasoli M, La Vecchia C (1988). "Induced abortions after the Chernobyl accident". Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 296 (6615): 136. doi:10.1136/bmj.296.6615.136-a. PMC 2544742. PMID 3122957.
  36. ^ Perucchi, M.; Domenighetti, G. (Dec 1990). "The Chernobyl accident and induced abortions: only one-way information". Scand J Work Environ Health. 16 (6): 443–4. doi:10.5271/sjweh.1761. PMID 2284594.
  37. ^ Alvin M. Weinberg (1 January 1994). The First Nuclear Era: The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 181–182. ISBN 978-1-56396-358-2.
  38. ^ Zbigniew Jaworowski, Radiation Risk and Ethics Archived 2005-11-19 at the Wayback Machine, Physics Today, 52(9), September 1999, pp. 24-29
  39. ^ Sacks, Bill; Meyerson, Gregory; Siegel, Jeffry A. (2016). "Epidemiology Without Biology: False Paradigms, Unfounded Assumptions, and Specious Statistics in Radiation Science (with Commentaries by Inge Schmitz-Feuerhake and Christopher Busby and a Reply by the Authors)". Biological Theory. 11 (2): 69–101. doi:10.1007/s13752-016-0244-4. ISSN 1555-5542. PMC 4917595. PMID 27398078.
  40. ^ Thomas, Geraldine. "Minimising the Health Consequences of Nuclear Accidents – Do We Need to Reassess Our Response?" (PDF).
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