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The Baltimore Shipyard Study

Posted Feb 25 2011 12:00am

In , Sean Estey described a study of Baltimore shipyard workers, some of whom handled radioactive materials. The ones exposed to more radiation were healthier than those exposed to less. The difference in death rate was huge: 25%. This is so large and consistent with other data I doubt it is due to a confounding.

You can read more about this study here and here . If one quarter of all deaths are due to suboptimal stimulation of repair systems, that’s extraordinary news. The study was finished around 1990. The plausibility of such a large benefit should have led to experiments. The observation that people in mountain states (such as Colorado) have less cancer than those in gulf states (such as Alabama) as well as greater radiation exposure suggested to John Cameron, a professor of toxicology, an experiment in which some gulf state residents are exposed to enough radiation to bring their total exposure up to what mountain state residents receive. This has yet to be done.

In a paper about the effects of low-dose radiation , the authors say we should ignore the Baltimore study because of “the healthy worker” effect the possibility that persons in one exposure group were healthier than those in another exposure group because workers are healthier than non-workers (and fitness for work may have differed between the exposure groups in the Baltimore study). They give three examples to illustrate the healthy worker effect. In these examples, a group in which everyone has a particular job were healthier than the general public, which includes many people without a job. In their examples, the median effect of being in the  full-employment group (in which everyone has a job) is a 10% decrease in mortality compared to the general-public group (in which some people don’t have a job because of disability). That should give a good idea of the maximum size of the healthy worker effect when something is explicitly varied, that’s what happens. The Baltimore study compares person with job to person with job, not person with job to person without job. This suggests that in the Baltimore study, the healthy worker effect was smaller than the effect in the examples, meaning smaller than a 10% reduction. Such an effect cannot explain a 25% reduction.

on my earlier post linked to a 2007 study of people in Taiwan whose apartment building was accidentally contaminated with radioactive materials. By the time of data collection, they had gotten far less cancer (3% of what would have been expected) than the general Taiwan population. A healthy worker effect cannot explain this. Again, the reduction is so great it is unlikely to be due to confounding.
If I could buy something to put under my bed that would expose me to the level of radiation received by people in Colorado, I would.

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