Disclaimer: Living near a nuclear power plant is not the answer to increasing the odds of you men out there fathering a baby boy, the boy you so eagerly want to teach how to spit and play baseball. While it may seem that way, the effects of ionizing radiation reach far beyond disturbing sex odds. In February of this year, a study revealed a cause-and-effect relationship between ionizing radiation and disturbed sex odds, in other words a higher number of male infants born compared to females. This study in Environmental Science & Pollution Research, performed by a group of scientists (Scherb and Voigt) in Germany, gains credibility with data from 40 different countries including the United States, and data from many millions of human births between 1950 and 2007. The sex chromosomes of fathers appear to be at higher risk from mutation due to ionizing radiation, resulting in more male and fewer female children born. Tweet
Ionizing radiation consists of energetic particles or waves that have enough energy to disturb atoms in matter, including the atoms that make up the human body. Ionizing radiation is emitted from radioactive materials, such as those materials that fuel nuclear power plants and that make atomic bombs so deadly. Scherb and Voigt suggest that, beyond disturbed sex odds, the total number of human births in general is affected by radiation released in to the atmosphere. They estimate that the number of children not born along with the number of children stillborn or impaired due to the effects of such radiation number in the millions. Sources of atmospheric radiation include atomic bombs, atomic bomb testing such as that in the U.S. prior to a ban in 1963, and nuclear plant accidents like that at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. Proximity to nuclear power plants under normal operations may also pose a risk to human reproduction and ratio of male to female births. Results from the German study reveal changes in sex odds for parents living within distances of 35km from an operating plant. Although the total number of children not born or born with impairments due to ionizing radiation pales in comparison to naturally occurring pregnancy complications and diseases, this study reveals that we may be underestimating the impact of low-dose ionizing radiation on reproductive health.
From 1949 until a partial ban in 1963, the U.S. blasted radioactive fallout from test bombs into the atmosphere. This release of ionizing radiation had a global effect according to the Scherb and Voigt 2011 study, chronically increasing the ratio of male to female births by a significant amount in the 10 years following the 1963 ban. This delayed effect reached many countries in Europe, as well as harming reproductive health in the United States. Altered sex odds at birth, quite clearly one effect of radioactive atmospheric bomb testing, is indicative of genetic damage or general harm to the health of parents before conception, to pregnant women, and to the developing fetus.
Scherb and Voight also found a strong link between ionizing radiation and disturbed sex odds in cases of nuclear plant disasters, and even in cases of normal nuclear plant operation for individuals living within 35 kilometers of a plant. A significant Jump in sex odds occurred in the year 1987 following the Chernobyl disaster, where a nuclear reactor exploded and dispersed large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. The Chernobyl disaster is considered the world’s worst nuclear accident, with the only other level 7 incident being the late Fukushima accident whose long-term effects are yet to be known. The ratio of male to female births around Chernobyl increased by nearly half a percent compared with trends of sex odds in less exposed countries of Europe. No effects were seen in the USA far from the Chernobyl site, and sex odd disturbances were greater for regions closer to the Chernobyl site. In other words, sex odds where changed in France to a lesser extent than those in Germany, and those in Germany to a lesser extent than those in the Russian Federation. This dose-response (greater sex odds disturbances as we look at birth data closer to the site of disaster) makes for strong evidence that ionizing radiation causes a higher ratio of male to female births due to decreases in female embryo conception and survival. However, “further independent investigation” is needed in order to eliminate the possibility that parents’ fear to conceive children after nuclear disasters is not contributing to the observed changes in sex odds.
The Scherb and Voight 2011 study was one of the first to thoroughly investigate genetic consequences after Chernobyl. Their findings of increased sex odds near nuclear facilities in Germany and Switzerland also support recent reports of increased risk of childhood cancer and leukemia near nuclear power plants (Spix 2008, Nussbaum 2009). While radiation levels below 100 milliSieverts (a unit of radiation based on its biological effects) are generally considered low-level in terms of health risks, this study reveals that we may need to set the bar lower. We will need to come up with solutions to these health impacts if we wish to pursue nuclear energy as a true replacement for fossil fuels: further precautions against nuclear accidents, increased protection or even home relocation for those living near power plants, and informed awareness to potential risks. Meanwhile as the outlook for fossil fuel reserves and impacts on climate change worsens, and nuclear energy alternatives suffer controversy over safety and potential health issues, I think we should be concerned with finding better and safer energy solutions.
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Scherb H, & Voigt K (2011). The human sex odds at birth after the atmospheric atomic bomb tests, after Chernobyl, and in the vicinity of nuclear facilities. Environmental science and pollution research international, 18 (5), 697-707 PMID: 21336635
1. Hagen Scherb and Kristina Voigt, 2011. ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND POLLUTION RESEARCH Volume 18, Number 5, 697-707
2. Spix C, Schmiedel S, Kaatsch P, Schulze-Rath R, Blettner M (2008) Case-control study on childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants in Germany 1980-2003. Eur J Cancer 44(2):275-284
3. Nussbaum RH (2009) Childhood leukemia and cancers near German nuclear reactors: significance, context, and ramifications of recent studies. Int J Occup Environ Health 15(3):318-323
1. Radiation Hazard Symbol, Wiki Commons
2. Video of Trinity Bomb Test – Wiki Commons
3. Radiation and Sex Odds Trend Graph – Data from Scherb 2011, weapons testing graph from Wiki Commons