The Linear No-Threshold Model of Radiation Risk

Certain topics discussed in Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology always fascinate me. One is the linear no-threshold model. In Section 16.12, Russ Hobbie and I write

In dealing with radiation to the population at large, or to populations of radiation workers, the policy of the various regulatory agencies has been to adopt the linear no-threshold (LNT) model to extrapolate from what is known about the excess risk of cancer at moderately high doses and high dose rates, to low doses, including those below natural background.

Possible responses to radiation are summarized in Figure 16.51 of IPMB. Scientists continue to debate the LNT model because reliable data (shown by the two data points with their error bars in the upper right) do not extend down to low doses.

Figure 16.51 from Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, showing possible responses to various doses of radiation.
Figure 16.51 from Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, showing possible responses to various doses of radiation.

The linear no-threshold assumption is debated in a point/counterpoint article in the August issue of Medical Physics (“ The Eventual Rejection of the Linear No-Threshold Theory Will Lead to a Drastic Reduction in the Demand for Diagnostic Medical Physics Services,” Volume 46, Pages 3325–3328). I have discussed before how useful point/counterpoint articles are for teaching medical physics. They provide a glimpse into the controversies that medical physicists grapple with every day. The title of each point/counterpoint article is phrased as a proposition. In this case, Aaron Jones argues for the proposition and Michael O’Connor argues against it. The moderator Habib Zaidi frames the issue in his overview

Controversies about the linear no‐threshold (LNT) hypothesis have been around since the early development of basic concepts in radiation protection and publication of guidelines by professional societies. Historically, this model was conceived over 70 yr ago and is still widely adopted by most of the scientific community and national and international advisory bodies (e.g., International Commission on Radiological Protection, National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements) for assessing risk from exposure to low‐dose ionizing radiation. The LNT model is currently employed to provide cancer risk estimates subsequent to low level exposures to ionizing radiation despite being criticized as causing unwarranted public fear of all low-dose radiation exposures and costly implementation of unwarranted safety measures. Indeed, linearly extrapolated risk estimates remain hypothetical and have never been rigorously quantified by evidence-based studies. As such, is the LNT model legitimate and its use by regulatory and advisory bodies justified? What would be the impact on our profession if this hypothesis were to be rejected by the scientific community? Would this result in drastic reduction in the demand for diagnostic medical physics services? These questions are addressed in this month’s Point/Counterpoint debate.

Both protagonists give little support to the linear no-threshold hypothesis; they write as if its rejection is inevitable. What is the threshold dose below which risk is negligible? This question is not resolved definitively, but 100 mSv is the number both authors mention.

The linear no-threshold model has little impact for individuals, but is critical for estimating public health risks-such as using backscatter x-ray detectors in airports -when millions of people are exposed to minuscule doses. I’m no expert on this topic so I can’t comment with much authority, but I’ve always been skeptical of the linear no-threshold model.

Much of this point/counterpoint article deals with the impact of the linear no-threshold model on the medical physics job market. I agree with O’Connor that “[The title of the point/counterpoint article] is an interesting proposition as it implies that medical physicists care only about their field and not about whether or not a scientific concept (the LNT) is valid or not,” except “interesting” is not the word I would have chosen. I am skeptical that resolution of the LNT controversy will have a significant consequences for medical physics employment. After we discuss a point/counterpoint article in my PHY 3260 (Medical Physics) class, I insist that students vote either “for” or “against” the proposition. In this case, I agree with O’Connor and vote against it.

I will leave you with O’Connor’s concluding speculation about how rejecting the linear no-threshold model will affect both the population at large and on the future medical physics job market.

In our new enlightened world 30 yr from now, LNT theory has long been discarded, the public are now educated as to the benefits of low doses of ionizing radiation and there is no longer a race to push radiation doses lower and lower in x‐ray imaging. On the contrary, with acceptance of radiation hormesis, a new industry has arisen that offers the public an annual booster dose of radiation every year, particularly if they live in low levels of natural background radiation. How will this booster dose be administered? For those with the means, it might mean an annual trip to the Rocky Mountains. For others it could mean a trip to the nearest clinic for a treatment session with ionizing radiation. Who will oversee the equipment designed to deliver this radiation, to insure that the correct dose is delivered? The medical physicist!

Originally published at

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.