The variation in background radiation levels is an important source of information for estimating human risks associated with low-level exposure to ionizing radiation. Several studies conducted in the United States, correlating mortality rates for cancer with estimated background radiation levels, found an unexpected inverse relationship. Such results have been interpreted as suggesting that low levels of ionizing radiation may actually confer some benefit. An environmental factor strongly correlated with background radiation is altitude. Since there are important physiological adaptations associated with breathing thinner air, such changes may themselves influence risk. We therefore fit models that simultaneously incorporated altitude and background radiation as predictors of mortality. The negative correlations with background radiation seen for mortality from arteriosclerotic heart disease and cancers of the lung, the intestine, and the breast disappeared or became positive once altitude was included in the models. By contrast, the significant negative correlations with altitude persisted with adjustment for radiation. Interpretation of these results is problematic, but recent evidence implicating reactive forms of oxygen in carcinogenesis and atherosclerosis may be relevant. We conclude that the cancer correlational studies carried out in the United States using vital statistics data do not in themselves demonstrate a lack of carcinogenic effect of low radiation levels, and that reduced oxygen pressure of inspired air may be protective against certain causes of death.

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