United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Protecting People and the Environment

Radiation Exposure and Cancer

The associations between radiation exposure and cancer are mostly based on populations exposed to relatively high levels of ionizing radiation (e.g., Japanese atomic bomb survivors and recipients of selected diagnostic or therapeutic medical procedures). Cancers associated with high dose exposure include leukemia, breast, bladder, colon, liver, lung, esophagus, ovarian, multiple myeloma, and stomach cancers. Literature from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also suggests a possible association between ionizing radiation exposure and prostate, nasal cavity/sinus, pharyngeal and laryngeal, and pancreatic cancers.

Those cancers that may develop as a result of radiation exposure are indistinguishable from those that occur naturally or as a result of exposure to other chemical carcinogens. Furthermore, literature from the National Cancer Institute indicates that other chemical and physical hazards and lifestyle factors (e.g., smoking, alcohol consumption, and diet) significantly contribute to many of these same diseases.

Although radiation may cause cancer at high doses and high dose rates, public health data do not absolutely establish the occurrence of cancer following exposure to low doses and dose rates — below about 10,000 mrem (100 mSv). Studies of occupational workers who are chronically exposed to low levels of radiation above normal background have shown no adverse biological effects. Even so, the radiation protection community conservatively assumes that any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect, and that the risk is higher for higher radiation exposures.

A linear no-threshold (LNT) dose-response relationship is used to describe the relationship between radiation dose and the occurrence of cancer. This dose-response model suggests that any increase in dose, no matter how small, results in an incremental increase in risk. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) accepts the LNT hypothesis as a conservative model for estimating radiation risk.

Page Last Reviewed/Updated Friday, October 17, 2014