Ramsar, land of radiation hardened super beings


Ramsar, land of radiation hardened super beings
by Ari Siletz

The Ramsar area in Mazandaran, Iran has one of the highest levels of natural background radiation in the world. It comes from the radioactive elements present in the hot springs that Ramsar is famous for. Folks living near the hot springs get the equivalent of one chest X ray every two hours throughout their lifetime. One would think that this would create a high rate of cancer among the natives; surprisingly it doesn’t seem to. In fact, when radiation researcher P. Andrew Karam took blood cells from native Ramsaris and exposed them to radiation, he found that the Ramsar cells are unusually resistant to radiation damage. The typical Ramsar kid playing in the streets seems to have a level of immunity to radiation that allows him to tolerate at least five times the annual occupational limit for a US nuclear energy worker!

I ran into this bit of Iraniana while trying to make sense of the Japan nuclear disaster radiation levels. Just what does it mean that the level of radiation reported in the immediate vicinity of the stricken reactor in the Fukushima plant was 1000 mSv per hour? Well, Ramsaris get a maximum of 260 mSv (milli sieverts) per year from their hot spring environment. So we will create a new unit, which we will call “the ramsar,” equivalent to this 260 mSv.  In our new homemade unit, a Fukushima nuclear worker in the vicinity of the reactor would get about 4 ramsars every hour (note that Ramsaris get one ramsar every year). . After the Fukushima disaster, the Japanese raised their maximum allowable nuclear worker exposure from about half a ramsar to just below one ramsar to allow the emergency work to legally continue.  If a worker uses up his one ramsar quota, he can't legally work the rest of the year. Even with the raised quota, this means that a nuclear emergency worker at the Fukushima plant can only work for only a quarter of an hour near the reactor before he is done for the year and has to be replaced by a fresh worker.

In cases where human life is at stake (perhaps there’s someone is trapped in the reactor building) The US Environmental Protection Agency allows a volunteer rescuer a total of only about 3 ramsars for the duration of the rescue operation. US workers are allowed 2 ramsars if the situation is not immediately life threatening but still an emergency. By the way, some Chernobyl emergency workers supposedly received about 770 ramsars during every hour of their effort. According to the IAEA 28 emergency workers died of acute radiation sickness within 3 months of the accident.

Let’s hope we won’t have to worry about how many ramsars we would measure in Bushehr if things go wrong with that reactor.


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Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

I don't know about radiation resistant cancer cells, but in chemotherapy cancer cells are subject to evolutionary selection pressure and become harder and harder to kill in subsequent treatments. Interesting line of thought though regarding radiation resistant cancer cells.


I guess radiation vaccine not quite in the offing

by maghshoosh on

Thanks Ari for checking on it.  If there is such a radiation resistance effect, what does it say about cancer cells that may survive radiation treatments?  Do they become subsequently harder to kill with further treatment, sort of like bacteria that survive anti-bacterial drugs?

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Interesting radiation table.

I asked a medical researcher about radiation hormesis and animal testing. She said the linear model is an "obsession" that someday we should get away from. Lab tests are still good news bad news situations, and they just aren't sure which outweighs which.   


Any animal testings?

by maghshoosh on

Thanks Ari for the clarification.  So they're suggesting a radiation hormesis effect at Ramsar's high radiation areas.  Namely, radiation below a certain threshold could build resistance, whereas above this hypothetical threshold it would be detrimental.  Do you know how much animal experimentation has been done to test that?

As a curiosity, here are some daily doses of radiaition:


Mash Ghasem


by Mash Ghasem on

the local Ramsari resistance to radiation comes from those Kolocheh Berenjis, and all that herbs they smoke, before eating those Rice Cookies.

It just heard Chyrnobuel ended up with 945,000 deaths. does that qualify for a Holocust?

A.H., yes, Kolob Sherkat Naft was superb (all over, Tehran , Ramsar, Abadan,..),at least for a teenager,dose were da dayez. Unfortunately the one I recall wasn't for all workers, it was for the 'engineers'. The workers had theirs too (in Abadan), but it wasn't much.

Ari Siletz

Some replies

by Ari Siletz on

Esfand: I don't believe the rumor about Ramsarosaurus either, even though she is like a mother to all the river rocks in Ramsar. The Mashadosaurus does look like a real dinosaur though. 

Anahid: In an way, the "ramsar" is a better unit for measuring radiation in the context of human health that the sievert. For obvious ethical reasons we can't expose humans to radiation to find out what is the smallest amount just before they get sick, and use that amount as our unit. The next best thing is to find the highest natural radiation region in which humans still live healthy lives and use that as our unit. Ramsar is that place. The sievert has the advantage of being compatible with the metric system, but as the Japan disaster reports show it is not directly meaningful to most readers trying to stay informed on this very important issue.

Sid: The sources I have seen do suggest a high breast cancer rate in Mazanderan though not specifically due to any anomaly in Ramsar. A breast cancer study of Ramsar (and Tonekabon) interestingly does not list proximity to natural radiation source among the risk factors. This indirectly agrees with Karam's paper that the elevated radiation in Ramsar is not a health risk--whatever else maybe the cause of the high breast cancer rate in Mazanderan.








Breast Cancer

by Sid Sarshar on

I thought the rate of breast cancer was very high in Ramsar.  Did you come across any data on this subject in your research Ari?  Sid

Anahid Hojjati

thanks Ari for your blog

by Anahid Hojjati on

I like how you came up with Ramsar unit for radiation. I am reminded of few things about Ramsar, this beautiful city. When you swim over there, it is annoying because there are rocks under you as you swim. Another one is the flying cockroaches.

Also didn't Oil company in Iran have a place for vacationing workers in Ramsar?  Anyone remember that?

Esfand Aashena

Ari jaan does this have anything to do with Ramsar dinasours?!

by Esfand Aashena on

Rumor has it a Persiaanasour was found in Ramsar along with her eggs!  I was wondering if radiation had anything to do with them!

Ramsaris are different from others.  Somehow they're more cheerful and humorous, although they "think" they're funny, but they're not!  They're good people but people who are not Ramsaris but end up living there through marriage or work don't seem to like it as much as Ramsaris themselves. 

Everything is sacred

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

1. Good point about internal vs. external exposure.   2. The adaptative respone is probably stimulated by chronic exposure to the non-lethal radiation, and not genetically inherited (similar to vaccination). If I'm reading Karam's paper right, Ramsar residents not living in high radiation areas don't have super blood cells.



Zapping that doesn't kill you will only make you more bug-like

by maghshoosh on

Thanks Ari for the interesting info.  Since the average exposure due to background radiation on earth is about 2.4mSv, the Ramsaris could be getting as much as 100 times that average.  Nevertheless, their radiation tolerance is dwarfed by those who shall truly inherit the earth in case of a nuclear armageddon:


One dispute in various discussions of the health effects of radiation regards the distinction between external and internal exposure, which refers to when the radiation originates from a source outside vs inside the body, as in getting zapped by an x-ray machine vs ingesting spinach contaminated with a radioactive element such as cesium 137 (which will subsequently irradiate one from the inside).  Some experts maintain that the current standards for radiation exposure safety do not adequately take into account the much more detrimental effects of internal radiation.  I haven't read the (Baba) Karam paper you reference, but if Ramsaris are only exposed to external radiation, they're at an extra advantage relative to those at the Fukushima site, whose bodies are also absorbing radioactive elements.

If possible, it would have also been pertinent for the researchers to compare radiation resistance in places like Ramsar among residents whose ancestors have also lived there vs more recent transplants, to more accurately test adaptation as an explanation for this resistance.