The Truth About Tritium
To the Editor:
A Valley News editorial some time ago decried the rise of "truthiness," the attitude that facts matter not at all and that perception is everything. The editorial closed by saying, "History is full of frightening examples of what can happen when individuals and political factions come to believe they are entitled to their own facts. Let's not go there."
In light of these noble sentiments, it is unfortunate that the Valley News continues to publish articles misrepresenting the risk of exposure to the radioactive element tritium. For example, on Jan. 12, the Valley News published an Associated Press article ("Hearing on Vt. Yankee Leaks") stating that tritium "is a carcinogen when ingested in high amounts." This statement is a particularly slippery example of "truthiness," one designed to play on our fears of radioactivity and cancer.
How has tritium been linked to cancer? In none of the ways that the reader is likely (and perhaps intended) to assume. As pointed out in previous letters to the editor, there is no documented case where a human has ingested large amounts of tritium and has subsequently developed cancer. Results of animal studies have been ambiguous. There are no statistical studies linking tritium exposure to cancer. In fact, the so-called link between tritium and cancer is purely hypothetical: because tritium is radioactive and exposure to radiation can lead to cancer, therefore, exposure to tritium leads to cancer.
Perhaps to cover up a paucity of actual facts and to lend credibility, the qualifiers "ingested in high amounts" are added. Why? Because the radiation emitted by tritium is of such low energy that it cannot penetrate human skin or even a piece of paper. Therefore, to have any chance of causing cancer, tritium, would have to be ingested in large amounts.
A balanced assessment by the California EPA of the health risks from tritium may be found on the Web at
I urge readers interested in learning the facts about this issue to read this document.
Apparently, for the Valley News, some people, in this case environmentalists opposed to Vermont Yankee, are entitled to their own facts.
Thomas J. Curphey
The writer is a retired research professor of pathology at Dartmouth Medical School and a retired adjunct professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College.