A new paper published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation asserts that low-level nuclear radiation might be much less dangerous than previously thought. At the same time, other researchers are renewing interest in applying low-dose radiation therapy – studied as early as 1905 as a tool to fight pneumonia – in the ongoing fight to contain and control deadly and disruptive outbreaks of the virus known as COVID 19. Yet, still other research recommits many in the medical field to fighting ANY use of radiation therapy as too dangerous to risk.

According to authors Dr. Edward Calabrese and Dr. Mikko Paunio, recent reviews of seminal research conducted following the end of World War II have uncovered serious flaws in the “linear no-threshold” assumption that all nuclear radiation is dangerous no matter low the level of exposure.

Dr. Calabrese, a UMass – Amherst professor of toxicology, has for two decades focused his research on understanding the nature of the radiation dose response in the low-dose zone. His observations are leading to a major transformation in improving drug discovery and development and in the efficiency of the clinical trial, as well as the scientific foundations for risk assessment and environmental regulation for radiation and chemicals.

In a 2013 paper, Dr. Calabrese partnered with Dr. Guaray Dhawan to review the historical use of radiotherapy for fighting pneumonia and determine if low-dose radiation might still be a valuable pneumonia killer. They found a 1905 study by noted University of Pennsylvania professor John Herr Muller and D. L. Edsall of five pneumonia patients who benefited from X-ray treatments.

A decade later A. W. and W. A. Quimby successfully treated 12 cases of unresolved pneumonia, stating that “no pathological process in the body responds quicker to an X-ray exposure than the non-resolved following pneumonia.”

In 1924 German researchers Heidenhain and Fried reported that they had used X-rays to treat 243 cases of acute and subacute pyrogenic infections. The X-ray treatments blocked or reduced all types of inflammation, regardless of location in the body and whatever the cause. Fried reported that patients with high fever, severe dyspnea, and cyanosis typically reported improved breathing with six hours of being irradiated.

American researcher Eugene Powell championed X-ray therapy for treating pneumonia at the Medical Association meeting in Houston, Texas, in May 1936. Later, Powell blew off a double-blind trial because his patients who were receiving the X-ray treatment were relieved of respiratory and circulatory distress in less than 3 hours.

Until now, the latest use of radiotherapy to treat pneumonia came in 1943, when A. Oppenheimer reported using X-ray treatment to control coughing in recovering pneumonia patients. He later extended the application to patients suffering through acute pneumonia.

X-ray treatments proved effective against a broad range of pneumococcal pneumonia strains/types, offering a distinct advantage over the use of serum therapy. But with the arrival a few years later of sulfonamides, and later penicillin, X-ray therapy never became a component of systemwide public health measures to treat pneumonia.

Upon reading these positive reports, Dr. Calabrese weighed the lack of any new research on using radiotherapy to help pneumonia patients since 1946 against the findings of highly protective effects on about 850 patients along with rapid resolution of the disease. X-ray treatments had prevented considerable human suffering, reduced health care costs and the burden on families, and accelerated a return to normal living, whether work, school, or other activities.

Yet the question remained as to how to reactivate a well-established, yet 65-year-old hypothesis, with contemporary research questions, methods, and technologies that still may hold public health potential. Calabrese and Dhawan proposed a focused clinical research program to assess the use of X-ray therapy for pneumonia as an adjunct treatment for high-risk patients. Seven years later, X-ray therapy has found a new target – the high-risk patients infected with COVID 19, of which up to 20 percent develop pneumonia and are at risk of death.

Standing in the way of this research, should believers in the precautionary principle take control of the science, is the belief, expressed in a new report by Richard Bramhall and Pete Wilkinson, which was produced by the Low-Level Radiation Campaign for Children With Cancer UK. The authors assert that even tiny doses of radiation can have devastating effects on the human body, particularly by causing cancer and birth defects. This, they believe, makes a strong case for a basic rethink on so-called “safe” radiation doses.

But Calabrese states the claims that any dose of radiation is dangerous are now known to be based on scientific studies that were deceptive, flawed, or even fraudulent. Dr. Paunio, former chair of the Finnish Radiological Protection Board, explained that support for the linear no-threshold assumption was bolstered by began with a study that followed the life histories of the Hibakusha – survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.

According to Dr. Paunio, another team of Japanese researchers recently found major flaws in the older research. As he explained, “Their error was extraordinary. They failed to account for the effects of secondary radiation exposures and fallout. This means that the rather low numbers of cancers observed in the Hibakusha were actually caused by quite high exposures to radiation.

Calabrese and Paunio should be thrilled at the Number of major clinical trials already under way to determine the value of low-dose radiation in fighting the COVID 19 pandemic. Radiation’s track record with pneumonia may prove helpful to the 15 to 20 percent of those infected with COVID 19 who otherwise develop severe inflammatory effects that can lead to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and death.

Just a few weeks ago, James Conca, writing in Forbes, confirmed the Calabrese-Paunio research, noting the early 20th Century success using low doses of radiation to treat the deadly inflammation of pneumonia, particularly viral pneumonia like that caused by COVID-19, and agreeing that radiation may have a role in mitigating today’s pandemic. Conca reported that several medical institutions are set to start radiation therapies for COVID-19. 

Dr. James Welsh at Loyola University Medical Center, is moving to begin a national trial within the next few months on this treatment using low-dose radiation to the lungs. Trials are already underway at  at Emory University and in Italy and Spain. At least five other trials are recruiting patients, and the U.S. FDA has been urged to conduct a low-dose radiation trial at the Hines VA Medical Center in Chicago.

Just remember, as Calabrese and Dhawan said in 2013, radiotherapy had been broadly accepted by the radiological community starting in the second decade of the 20th century, with notable successes in the treatment of a wide range of inflammatory and infectious diseases such as gas gangrene, carbuncles, sinusitis, arthritis, and inner ear infections.


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  • Duggan Flanakin

    Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. A former Senior Fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Mr. Flanakin authored definitive works on the creation of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and on environmental education in Texas. A brief history of his multifaceted career appears in his book, "Infinite Galaxies: Poems from the Dugout."