I’ve been monitoring reaction to the potential threat of exposure to radiation drifting across the Pacific from Japan to the West Coast of the United States. I had noticed some extreme reactions and thought now would be a good time to ask my good friend Eugene to comment on the situation. Some of you will recognize Eugene as Imabug from the comments. I’ve known Eugene for the past five years and my husband attended his presentation at BarcampCHS back in November of 2010: Talking through Radiation FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt). Tim was a nuke in the Navy on an aircraft carrier, so between the two of them, Home Ec 101 has some serious resources when with comes to understanding radiation. If you have questions, ASK them. Both Eugene and Tim will be happy to answer them without drama or fear mongering.
Radiation from Japan
Disclaimer: I am not a nuclear reactor engineer. I am a medical physicist specializing in diagnostic imaging. I know about radiation.
Do I need to worry about the radiation?
The amount of radiation that has been released from the damaged reactors in Japan is unknown, but you can be pretty much guaranteed that if any of it does reach the west coast of Canada or the US, it will be at very very low concentrations and detectable only by very sensitive radiation detectors. There is a lot of air and weather between the western US/Canada and Japan that will serve to dilute and wash out any radioactive materials in the atmosphere.
The time it takes for stuff to blow from there to here also means some of the radioactive materials will decay away, further reducing the amount of radiation that reaches here. It’s been over a week since the earthquake and initial explosions at the reactor so any airborne radioactivity would probably have reached the US by now. There have been reports of radioactive contamination detected at various airports around the US, but that is due to the radioactive material coming in on planes and passengers.
Radiation monitoring stations maintained by the EPA have not detected any significant levels of atmospheric radioactive material from the Japanese reactors.
If you’ve been following the reports in the media recently, you’ll have heard people talking about stocking up on radiation or potassium iodide (KI) pills.
Some people will tell you it protects against radiation poisoning (which by the way is a completely inaccurate term), others say it protects against radiation exposure or blocks the effects of radiation.
What potassium iodide will do is saturate your body with stable (non-radioactive) iodine so that the thyroid can’t take up any radioactive iodine that might be present in your body.
That’s all potassium iodide does.
It’s also only effective when it’s taken a few days before the exposure occurs. It’s not going to protect you from the radiation given off while the radioactive iodine wanders the body waiting to be sucked up by the thyroid.
It’s not going to protect you from any other type of radiation.
It just keeps your thyroid from taking up the radioactive iodine because there’s so much more stable iodine in your body.
At this point there is no reason for anybody in the US to start taking KI because of the reactor situation in Japan.
Reliable information sources:
- Health Physics Society – http://hps.org/fukushima/
- International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – http://iaea.org/newscenter/news/tsunamiupdate01.html
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Japanese Nuclear Emergency: Radiation Monitoring – http://www.epa.gov/japan2011/
- US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – http://www.nrc.gov/
- Understanding radiation units