Stochastic Effects

Stochastic effects are those that occur by chance and consist primarily of cancer and genetic effects. Stochastic effects often show up years after exposure. As the dose to an individual increases, the probability that cancer or a genetic effect will occur also increases. However, at no time, even for high doses, is it certain that cancer or genetic damage will result. Similarly, for stochastic effects, there is no threshold dose below which it is relatively certain that an adverse effect cannot occur. In addition, because stochastic effects can occur in individuals that have not been exposed to radiation above background levels, it can never be determined for certain that an occurrence of cancer or genetic damage was due to a specific exposure.

While it cannot be determined conclusively, it often possible to estimate the probability that radiation exposure will cause a stochastic effect. As mentioned previously, it is estimated that the probability of having a cancer in the US rises from 20% for non radiation workers to 21% for persons who work regularly with radiation. The probability for genetic defects is even less likely to increase for workers exposed to radiation. Studies conducted on Japanese atomic bomb survivors who were exposed to large doses of radiation found no more genetic defects than what would normally occur.

Radiation-induced hereditary effects have not been observed in human populations, yet they have been demonstrated in animals. If the germ cells that are present in the ovaries and testes and are responsible for reproduction were modified by radiation, hereditary effects could occur in the progeny of the individual. Exposure of the embryo or fetus to ionizing radiation could increase the risk of leukemia in infants and, during certain periods in early pregnancy, may lead to mental retardation and congenital malformations if the amount of radiation is sufficiently high.