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Wednesday, 3 May 1989
Page: 1731

(Question No. 704)


Senator Dunn asked the Minister representing the Minister for Community Services and Health, upon notice, on 5 December 1988:

(1) Does the Radiation Health Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) set standards for radiation exposure levels in Australia.

(2) What are the present recommended levels for both workers and the general public on an annual and lifetime cumulative basis.

(3) Does the Department or the NHMRC carry out regular tests of workers in susceptible industries; if so, what have been the results of tests of radiation exposures recorded in Australia.

(4) Will the Minister comment on a recent report by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation on the effects of radiation on the victims of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima atomic explosions which indicates that the predicted fatal cancer risk associated with radiation exposure has been raised by a factor of 2.

(5) In the light of this new information, what steps are being taken to review standards for exposure levels in Australia to ensure that workers are protected.


Senator Cook —The Minister for Community Services and Health has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) The Radiation Health Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) prepares recommended public and occupational radiation exposure limits for application under State and Territory radiation control legislation.

(2) Australia's Recommended Radiation Protection Standards require that:

no practice leading to radiation exposure should be adopted unless it produces a positive net benefit;

all exposures should be kept as low as reasonably achievable; and

dose equivalents to individuals should not exceed 50 millisieverts per year for radiation workers or 1 millisievert per year for members of the public. For the latter, this translates to a lifetime cumulative exposure limit of 70 millisieverts, or about one half of the natural background. These limits exclude exposures arising from natural background or exposures incurred in medical diagnosis or treatment.

(3) Neither the Department of Community Services and Health nor the NHMRC carry out regular monitoring of radiation workers, as this is a function carried out in all of the States and Territories by their own relevant health authorities. However, many radiation workers are monitored through the Australian Radiation Laboratory's personal radiation monitoring service, and average annual exposures have been derived for most occupational groups from this source. These averages differ from industry to industry and the average across all radiation workers is 0.5 millisievert per year, with a range from zero to 3.6.

The mining industry is not included in this summary, as miners are monitored in a different way. However, for the very high grade uranium mine at Nabarlek, the Australian Radiation Laboratory found that average exposures through the mining phase were approximately 3 millisieverts for the total of both external radiation and internal exposure arising from radon and its decay products. Averages for other mines are likely to be lower.

(4) During the past two years, much new research work on radiation risks has emerged, based on a re-evaluation of the exposures experienced by the Japanese atomic bomb survivors and on extended studies of their medical histories. This work is being closely examined by the international scientific community, and it is now generally considered that the radiation risk associated with severe exposure is about three times higher than earlier estimates.

(5) Information about the Japanese atomic bomb survivors is a very important component in the setting of radiation exposure standards, and the new studies have been reviewed in detail by the Radiation Health Committee. In view of the fact that exposures in Australia are very low, the Committee prepared for the NHMRC a Recommendation, which was promulgated in December 1988 and which does not advise a change in limits at this stage. Instead it draws attention to the new information and to the existing requirement that exposures should be kept as low as reasonably achievable. In particular, it advises that managers of workplaces in which employees regularly receive exposures which are a significant fraction of the recommended limits, should exercise particular care.

It is anticipated that the International Commission on Radiological Protection will publish revised Recommendations in 1990, which take into account this new information. When this occurs, they will be examined by the Radiation Health Committee and appropriate revisions of the Australian standards will follow.