Electromagnetic Radiation - update #2
Harley-Davidson Makes One Solid Bike
ELECTROMAGNETIC RADIATION: Part 2
Paul Herscu, ND, MPH
Sometimes, the topic at hand is so serious that it is hard for me not to interject a little humor in the title, in order to break the tension. The effects of radiation is one such topic. Radiation, as a threat fits into that part of our psyche that also inhabits ghosts, goblins, and the supernatural. As highlighted previously, the main reason this topic is in a different category than, say, tornadoes or bears is that we do not have the sense organs to tell when radiation is around. It is invisible, tasteless, odorless, and makes no sound. The topic has a sort of ‘creepiness’ to it, making it uncomfortable to consider in a logical manner. This leads us to panic when the news is worrisome, and just as soon as the news is over, to bury the topic in our memory and agree to not think about it again, and carry on as if nothing was ever wrong. We psychically put the panic away, as it is too overwhelming to face to a daily basis.
It has been one year now, since the earthquake in the Pacific led to the tsunami and devastation which eventually led to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants failures and subsequent disasters. While the news was horrifically terrifying for the population in Japan in general and the more local peoples of Okuma and Futaba of the Fukushima Prefecture, it also caused massive concern around the world. The question many asked was, “How will this impact me, in my country?” Countries went on alert, and, along with humanitarian aid to those immediately impacted, monitoring radiation across the globe became the call of the day. It was within those days of concern that I wrote my first paper on radiation. You may recall, the 2 main focal points of that document were to first describe what was meant by radiation, and second, to highlight the fact that if what was reported was the total radiation released, then many of us are exposed to more than that in our daily lives, and that while it was not a popular thought, the recommendation was to try to minimize that radiation. In other words as a public health concern, the radiation we are exposed to on a daily basis is considerably more important. I am starting with those last 3 paragraphs repeated here:
“At this time it does not seem to be a global scare, like that witnessed with Chernobyl. While the release in Chernobyl was over a wide area and contained scores and scores of different radioactive molecules, thus far that does not seem to be the case with the Japanese incidents. As reported thus far, only 2 isotopes have been identified, which brings me to the next point, honest communication. I want to focus on this part in the next update. Without any major new leaks, without new fires, explosions, containment breaches, fuel rod breaks, and without new molecules being discovered, this tragedy may remain local. A tragedy on massive proportion, mind you, but still local, though the economic effects for limited raw resources will of course impact each of us over the next many years.
The bottom line is this: while one cannot remove completely the exposure to radiation, one could limit it. The two most likely radiation causes we can potentially be exposed to are radon and smoking, two things that can be mitigated by behavioral environmental choices.
In other words, stopping smoking and checking your home for Radon are the biggest changes you can make in relationship to radiation. It is not sexy, but incredibly important. In non-smokers, 82% of exposure is background radiation. Of the rest, protect one’s skin to exposure to the non ionizing radiation, and limit exposure to ionizing radiation in the day to day. To sum up then, for the overall world, the effects of the Japan radiation release is minimal at this time to the world’s health, though of course very different in Japan itself. However, for people in Japan, ionizing radiation may impact people locally both acutely and chronically. For the rest of you, stop smoking, and check for Radon. This may not capture your imagination and fear, but it is so much more important to you and your family’s health. A fuller consideration of what to do about the radiation, as it flows over the US, as well as a plea for honest communication needed from the government in the next update….”
Well, a few things have changed since last year. I know that this whole issue is not in the minds of most people, except for those in Japan. However, I am writing now as a way to prepare you for the upcoming news that will be announced sporadically over the next couple of years, and to hopefully prevent the sort of panic that we saw last year. With that in mind, let us begin.
First, the updates on the nuclear power plants themselves, and here only in broad strokes. While this topic may not be grabbing headline news anymore, the plants nevertheless still exist. And sadly, things have not gone well. There have been numerous problems at the plants as the government and scientists try to contain the release of radiation and stabilize the plants. However, the plants have not been stabilized, and unfortunately, there has been a continual release of radiation from the plants into the air and into the ocean waters. The damage was more serious than thought and the fixes have to be more complex, with many times, the technology not being adequate to stop releases of radiation into the atmosphere, on and off, throughout the year. Related, at the last writing there were only 2 radioactive molecules that were known to have been released, Celsium-137 and Iodine-131. That number has grown. Besides the 2 fission products mentioned above, Celsium-134, Celsium-136, Tellurium-129m, and potentially Plutonium-241 and Americium-241. So on both accounts, the extra release and the more varied material release is not good news. As we discussed last year we were hoping for neither of these events to occur, but there you have it.
The second variable is the public relation issues associated with these releases. I thought, and still think, that honest communication, written in a clear and balanced fashion, could be understood by everyone, and that we would all appreciate and support such efforts. Here too the story is mixed. While there have been stories that have clearly offered misrepresentations, the majority of stories actually are either buried within the newspapers, or are worded in such a way as to skirt real issues. As an example, most of us are not aware of the fact that there has been an episodic release of radioactivity over the past year, and that many things have continued to go wrong at the nuclear plants. Also, numerous radioactive tracking programs stopped being reported to the public months ago, even though there are still releases occurring. Most troublesome to the American population is that radioactivity surveillance has either stopped in some programs, been reduced, or described in some sort of doublespeak. For me, this is a sad turn of events. Primarily because we are more aware of relative risks, and if we were told the full story, in a balanced fashion, I think we would not panic but better understand how to lessen our overall radiation risks.
OK, enough with the depressing news. Why am I writing this update now?
Radiation releases from Fukushima occurred/occurs into the air and into the water. For the local area, it remains a disaster of epic proportion. However, for the world, the immediate concern was air-borne radiation, and now that it has more or less played itself out, the panic has subsided. It looks like there will not be a global impact from the air-borne release. For an interesting view of one model of air dispersal, look to NOAA’s website, http://www.arl.noaa.gov/HYSPLIT_SOS.php, and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCzuPm4T4qo.
Now for the water side of the equation. What happened to the pollutants and radiation that were released from the tsunami disaster? Well, from the prevailing currents of the Pacific Ocean, they have been heading east, towards the west coast of the United States. And this is why I am writing now. Let me start with the solids. In the last few weeks we have been hearing about a Japanese ‘ghost ship’ Ryou-Un Maru, that was lost at sea in the Tsunami and has recently found its way into Canadian and US waters. Here we see the ship, as well as US coast guard sinking the vessel.
Along with that ship, there are over a thousand tons of goods crossing the Pacific heading this way, arriving on and off over the next 2 years. To put it mildly, this mass of materials moving towards the USA coast has been ‘positioned’ by the media as an amusing break from the news of the day. Most notably, recently, there has been ‘news of the odd’ about Harley-Davidsons that just crossed the Pacific and landed on the beaches of British Columbia. And even if the images are not that clear, the bike still carries the license plate from Japan.
What is true is that many tons of debris is heading our way. And over the next couple of years you’re going to hear about this cute thing or that odd thing washing ashore in the US or on the western shores of Canada. Oddly, strangely, what will be missing from the news is anything involving radiation traveling in the same ocean current. And here is the point. Why is the news mute of radiation in the water, as if it is not reaching us? Yes Harley-Davidson bikes are supposed to stay intact, except for at chop-shops. Solid metals stay as solid metals and plastic stays as plastic over decades, until they reach our shores. In contrast, radiation that leaked into the water is supposed to get diluted within that great big ocean. In other words, while solids stayed as solids, the radiation is supposed to get dispersed within the whole ocean.
This is where it gets interesting. If you look online, at a map of the dispersion of radiation into the Pacific waters, you find the following points. First, the current off of Japan flows towards the United States before circulating back to Asia. Second, in any model of dispersion from NOAA, you find that the radioactive particles, while becoming extremely dilute, are flowing towards the United States. They have passed Hawaii already, and should arrive in a couple of months. What is particularly odd is that while these particles are being tracked, they do not make it into the news. In fact the opposite is true. We say that they either do not exist, have become too dilute, and/or anyway, they are so dilute that the levels are so low, that they do not pose any harm. It is this last comment, which has come out of the federal government that is odd, in and of itself. As mentioned in the first letter, from a year ago, there is no ‘safe’ level of radiation, and health effects of radiation exposure, in general, are cumulative. The more radiation over time, the worse its impact. Therefore, the statement that even small exposures are harmless is not in keeping with science. I understand the need to keep us calm, but false statements do not help. They make it less possible for us to take the best actions possible.
And here is what I mean. Radiation, released from Fukushima nuclear power plans, in both air and water ended up in the Pacific Ocean. We know that for a fact. We also know that certain elements will flow towards the US. We know that some of those elements will begin to concentrate in certain species, as they filter out foods and capture more and more of the radioactive isotopes, through the process called bioaccumulation. In fact some of this has been documented already. We knew already that the seaweed and kelps around Fukushima have trapped very high levels of these particles, such as Iodine-131, Cesium-137, and Cesium-134, these are similar to what we found in the rainwater in western US soon after the plant failures. We now have found very high levels of Iodine-131 in some of the kelp off of the California coast. Most likely these higher levels can be accounted for by the iodine-131 that was carried over in the air, and then fell to the ground in rainwater. The rainwater flowed to the sea and the Iodine-131 was accumulated in the seaweed. What we still do not know but will find out in the next few months is the level of radioactivity that reaches our shores, and then the amount of bioaccumulation as these isotopes work their way up the food chain. This is what you are going to hear a fair amount about over the next few months. My suggestion, which is going to be the suggestion you hear, is to limit seafood/seaweed exposure.
Here is my main problem though, with this strategy of keeping everyone in the dark. Yes, we have been exposed to and are going to be exposed to some more radiation over the coming years which escaped/escapes from Fukushima. I believe that being prudent, and primarily limiting the ability of certain species that are accumulating these isotopes from entering the food chain in a great way should help limit the danger. (Of course, stopping the new releases should remain paramount.) The main problem is that we are not putting this in context to the greater issues of radiation, which was my second point in the last letter. Put it in context, we lose many, many more people to radon and to radiation from cigarette smoke. If we were to put it in context, we should then shift more resources to combating these issues. Secondly, we are about to enter summer in the northern hemisphere, fun, beach, barbecues, sports; all great activities. However, the sun is more damaging than it has been. We are going to be exposed to the sun in great lengths over the next months. The amount of radiation damage, skin damage, and cancers that will develop from that is many times more dangerous and relevant to all of us than is the radiation that is heading this way.
The point that I am trying to make is simply this. We often react to emergencies, and imminent hysterical dangers. Yet the things that kill so many of us, we do not react to. A good public health communication between the government and the public should inform us of the realities about the radiation that was released, and then give us specific advice as to how to limit that danger (diminish to an acceptable amount, the consumption of west coast fish/kelp foods and foods which accumulate these), but then spend a great deal of resources combating the more pressing dangers of radon, tobacco use, and sun exposure. These may not be ‘sexy’ topics to educate us about, but taking care of these areas saves lives.
I hope that this helps prepare you for the news that may at times seem confusing and contradictory over the next couple of years on this topic. For me, this is putting in my ‘ounce of prevention’ for your peace of mind. Remember, “Don’t panic, keep calm, and carry on” though with less fish, and more sunscreen. Also, for those of you that are parents. A very high percent of sun damage occurs when one is young, so make sure your kids are screened and/or covered well.
I end this piece with a positive image of radiation. This is a photo taken by Kim McGuire of the recent ‘Supermoon’ of May 5th, 2012 (my birthday!). Here we see the moon reflecting sunlight creating beauty in the sky, but also representing, for me, the radiation that life needs from the sun to survive on this planet.
“Supermoon” Photo. 2012. © Kim McGuire.
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