Multiple Exposures

Curiously low key, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES allows the excesses in the use of X rays (discovered in 1895) or radium paint (especially during World War I) speak for themselves. In 1896, a five-year-old girl was exposed to two hours of X-ray “therapy” daily for more than two weeks. Radium poisoning had its own victims, often misdiagnosed since the use of the luminous radium paint for airplane dials and watches was thought to be harmless.

Yet it was not until 1934 that the U.S. Advisory Committee on X-Ray and Radium Protection developed exposure guidelines. Tentative at best, the recommendations were made more specific after World War II (and the advent of fallout from nuclear testing). Not until 1957 were those more specific standards incorporated into American law.

Radiation exposure standards were produced for the general public and for the worker in the nuclear industry, though they remained, for the most part, educated guesses, ignoring the effects of exposure from multiple sources (such as fallout, radon gas, medical X rays, and even cosmic rays). Extrapolated from studies of the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima, the standards were assumed correct until 1980, when scientists concluded that the amount of gamma radiation released at Hiroshima had been overestimated. This meant that such radiation was perhaps 40 percent more likely to cause cancer than had been suspected.

Current exposure standards take into account cost-benefit analysis, the product of politics as much as science. MULTIPLE EXPOSURES calls for the public to have more information and a greater say in its own exposure levels. The book is supported by striking early X-ray photographs, a bibliography, chronology of standards, and a glossary. Though not a scholarly study, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES is a reasoned addition to the public debate.