What a month it’s been. On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit with a series of severe life-changing natural disasters. An earthquake at Fukushima created a tsunami that caused vast destruction of lives, land, homes and businesses. And if that weren’t enough, it caused a nuclear plant disaster so severe it’s difficult for one to wrap his head around its scope.
As a former resident of Japan myself, with dozens of friends and some family members still living in the country, this disaster is especially close to me. Every day I receive multiple emails and Facebook messages from my friends there telling me what’s going on and offering insight into how what they see and hear on the news in Japan regarding the long-term health effects of the radiation differs from what they get from non-Japanese media sources.
According to Kyodo News, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano stated, "The possibility that the situation at the nuclear plant will deteriorate and lead to new leakage of massive radioactive materials is becoming significantly smaller." Yet Japan just raised its nuclear crisis from a Level 5 to a Level 7. This is the highest severity on the international scale overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And this raise in number would be an indicator to many that the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster is at the same level as Russia’s 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
One can easily see how confusing these statements can be. Yet The Associated Press reported that the Japanese plant was not worsening; the number increase “rather reflected concern about long-term health risks as it continues to spew into the air, soil and seawater. Most radiation exposures around the region haven’t been high enough yet to raise significant health concerns.” In fact, Fukushima has “only” emitted about 10 percent of the amount of radiation as did Chernobyl—yet that 10 percent is a staggering 10-times the level needed to reach the 7 scale.
Generations of lives already killed during the disaster are but a shadow of the extended deaths that will directly be caused by its aftermath. And those deaths may not be limited to Japan alone. Leading radiation health expert Dr. Chris Busby estimates that close to half-a-million people in Japan alone may die from cancer caused by these events.
It’s been more than a month since the nuclear power plant disaster and residents of the United States are fearful that their health and even their lives may also be at risk. They fear radiation will travel across the Pacific by wind and into the Atlantic by water. Updated information on the possible negative health affects in the United States is available on the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) website. Here are four key points offered by UCS relating to the negative effects of radiation.
- Radioactive materials decay, releasing particles that can damage living tissue and lead to cancer. Some elements have different forms, called isotopes, which differ in the number of neutrons in the nucleus.
- The radioactive isotopes of greatest concern in a nuclear power accident are iodine-131 and cesium-137. Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days, meaning half of it will have decayed after 8 days, and half of that in another 8 days, etc. Therefore, it is of greatest concern in the days and weeks following an accident. It is also volatile so it will spread easily.
- To guard against the absorption of iodione-131, people can proactively take potassium iodine pills so the thyroid becomes saturated with non-radioactive iodine and is not able to absorb any iodine-131.
- Cesium-137 has a half-life of about 30 years, so will take more than a century to decay by a significant amount. Living organisms treat cesium-137 as if it were potassium, and it becomes part of the fluid electrolytes and is eventually excreted. It can cause many different types of cancer.
But is there a real threat to Americans? Well, Russell Blaylock, M.D., seems to think there is. According to Blaylock, if a radiation plume from Japan hit the U.S. west coast it could pose a threat to the nation’s crops and the people that eat them. As we know, levels of radiation in milk in three states have been recorded at much higher levels than normal, causing some to believe that the radiation has indeed hit the U.S. food supply.
That sounds reasonable, and frightening. Yet, controversy looms. According to the UCS scientific community, wind patterns are likely to carry the plume eastward from Japan and the radioactive material will diffuse before reaching Hawaii, Alaska or the West Coast. Therefore, UCS thinks the threat is unlikely. In any case, UCS is quick to point out that even minute exposure to radiation poses life-threatening risks over time. The ‘good news’ is that the negative effects of radiation directly inhaled via such a radiation plume can be prevented or greatly reduced by taking potassium iodide (KI) pills.
Conversely, radioactive iodine could affect Americans through our food. According to Erin N. Marcus, M.D., associate professor of Clinical Medicine, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine: “Radioactive iodine could be ingested by dairy cows, for example, and then would be concentrated in milk. Potassium iodide, however, would not be effective in that situation.” Since Federal and State authorities are testing for contamination, such affected products should be pulled from shelves in time to prevent harm.
News has surfaced that radioactive iodine has been found in East Coast water supplies. While this certainly gives reason for worry, Dr. Lyman of the UCS asserts that at this time there is no need for concern. However, he is quick to interject, “no level of radiation is safe, because the scientific consensus is that there’s no threshold to the carcinogenic effect of radiation, but the risk is proportional to dose, and the dilution that’s experienced as a plume travels many thousands of miles is highly significant.”
Like I said in the opening of this article, the scope of this event and it continuing destruction is difficult for me to wrap my head around. The best advice I can give is to keep your eyes and ears open to all news sources that are verifiable.
Some quarters looking to push an agenda will either play up safety or present doom and gloom. Like anything else, things do not happen in a vacuum and everything can change in a second. The lessons from Fukushima show this clearly. While we don’t have control of much of this, here are a few things you do have control over:
- Do your best to check the food you eat if you suspect it may be contaminated
- Take KI pills to protect yourself if you live in an at-risk area of the country
- Boost your immunity by reducing stress, sleeping well, eating whole fruits and vegetables, and supplementing with antioxidants.
- Keep abreast of the situation through news sources from all parts of the globe.
And if you know something as an insider, please post it here in our discussion forum to keep the conversation going.
–Dr. Mark Wiley