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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Fukushima: Why I'm not filling my root cellar with iodine pills just yet

Well, today I went to the doctor and turns out I have a slightly enlarged thyroid.

What, you say it's residual radiation from Fukushima? Should I rush out and buy iodine?

Good grief, you too?

Uh, no. Besides the fact that I have a cold (which is making all the glands in my neck puffy), the Centers for Disease Control has explicitly warned about the dangers of taking iodine unnecessarily. So if you're getting those panic-mongering spammy emails trying to sell you iodine tabs, report them to the FTC before you delete them.

Since I haven't blogged for awhile (and since lack of PhD + relevant experience isn't stopping anyone else on the planet) thought I'd weigh in on the subject of radiation, and whether we should commence global freak out now, later or never.

To tackle this, I'll rely on my undergraduate geology major and my extensive research for a novel I'm going to write someday.

(As a side to the main action, one loopy character is horrifying her friends by writing an erotic romance novel about two doomed Chernobyl first-responders who decide to live it up before they start, er, disintegrating. Don't steal my idea.)

I probably wouldn't feel the need to go crazy blogging about this, but seriously, if I see one more fearmongering, 3-day-late Tweet from the Drudge Report, I might lose it.

Radioactivity detected in food!

Radioactivity detected in milk!

OMG, we broke the universe.

Nah. Before you start hoarding iodine in your Nebraska root cellar, consider:

#1 Everything is radioactive. Even you.

Yup, you, your pristine little self. In fact, you give your own self a radiation dose of about 0.39 millisieverts per year, just from the radioactive potassium swimming around your body.

Did you sleep next to anyone last night? If he/she was human, they're radioactive too. In fact, they exposed you to 0.0005 millisieverts of radiation (according to this handy chart compiled on the fly by a couple reactor researchers. Almost all the levels quoted below are directly from this chart).

While there's some anecdotal evidence that some of us are getting more radioactive than we used to be, we're talking very tiny amounts of the bad stuff. And statistically, in America we continue to live longer, despite having an increasing chemical load on our systems and one of the worst health care systems in the free world.

#2 Like an earthquake, radiation exposure increases exponentially. But there's a wide spectrum that can be tolerated by the human body.

Other things that are surprisingly radioactive:
  • Eating a banana (0.001 millisieverts)
  • Hanging around a more-radioactive-than-normal area like the Colorado Plateau for 1 day (.0012 millisieverts). Hey that may sound small, but over the course of a year, it adds up to a whopping 0.44 millisieverts. Still, we're not exactly glowing in the dark here.
  • Flying from NYC to LA (0.04 millisieverts). Preliminary studies of flight crews have failed to isolate an increased cancer risk.
  • Living in a stone house (0.08 millisieverts/year)
  • Maximum external dose from 3-Mile Island (1 millisievert)
  • Mammogram (3 millisieverts)
  • Average yearly background dose (3.65 millisieverts, including medical procedures)
  • Chest CT Scan (5.8 millisieverts)
So when the goofballs on the news are throwing stats at you like, radiation found in sea water or plutonium found in ground water, your question should always be, HOW MUCH?

Because 10,000 times "normal" for the person sleeping next to you or Colorado is about 5 millisieverts, still less than one chest CT scan.

Not that you want to get one of those every night of your life, but also not terrible when you consider that the maximum year dose for US radiation workers is 50 millisieverts and the smallest amount clearly linked to cancer/genetic damage is about 100 millisieverts/year.

#3 Over time, environmental radiation might kill you -- if you hang out at one of three places on earth.

If you hung out next to the Chernobyl reactor (encased in its ever crumbling sarcophagus thing) on an average day, you'd receive an average of 6 millisieverts per hour of radiation.

This would amount to a clear cancer risk in approximate 16 hours, and acute radiation sickness in about 3 days. You probably wouldn't die, but might experience nausea and vomiting immediately, followed by weakness and fatigue in about a month.

To receive a theoretical 100 percent fatal dose of radiation (6000 millisieverts), you'd have to camp out next to Chernobyl for almost three years, and because the dose is spaced over a long time period, you still might survive (though you'd probably be a fright).

Since it's my blog and I'll digress if I want to, Chernobyl could have been worse, but by any objective criteria, it was (and continues to be) a human disaster of epic proportions.

The damage caused by Chernobyl was exacerbated by Soviet secrecy. Many who volunteered or were ordered to help with the containment efforts were not informed of the true risks they faced. Local people were warned late or not at all of the disaster and its health effects. Their health was permanently damaged, their lifespans shortened.

For more info see two (disturbing) documentaries The Battle For Chernobyl and Chernobyl Heart.

Continuing our tour of the world's major radioactive zones, we head next to the Ural Mountains near Kyshtym, Russia. The area was the site of an early Soviet nuclear facility called Mayak (which still operates). Mayak's underground nuclear waste storage facility exploded in 1957, dispersing radioactive material over a vast region.

Though not much is known about the lingering effects of the Mayak disaster, it was eventually estimated to by an INES level 6 event. Roughly half a million people were exposed to radiation, but statistics on death and illness are limited. Soviet secrecy at work again.

Before the explosion, Mayak also dumped high-level radioactive waste into local rivers and used unwitting prisoners to cover over the dry lake bed where early waste had been dumped with sand.

Early clues to the Mayak disaster surfaced in the US when a defecting Russian scientist described driving across the Urals in the 70s. On the way, he saw signs that warned him to "STAY IN VEHICLE" and "DRIVE FAST."

Disaster zone number 3 would of course be the immediate vicinity of Fukushima Daiichi, where radiation levels as of March 17 were hovering around 3.6 millisieverts per day. Not the worst the world has ever seen, but tragic if you live there and may not be able to return.

At that rate, a human would receive a potentially cancer-causing dose in just over a day. And as of this writing, the situation appears to have potential to get worse.

#4 So when should we panic?

In the US, never. Chernobyl was closer, and had far more widespread effects, and it really didn't impact American health at all.

For perspective, those containment buildings that have been breached in Japan? Chernobyl didn't even have one. Also, those cores that are "partially melting?" Chernobyl's exploded, caught on fire, and spewed high into the atmosphere.

Freaking out with Tweets and headlines about iodine tablets and radioactive milk (when all milk is radioactive) is not only an irrational response, it trivializes the plight of people in Japan who in addition to other traumas may not be able to return to their homes because of the radiation danger. Not to mention people who are sacrificing their health and their future at the Fukushima plant to keep the situation from getting worse.

If given objective numbers from reliable sources, you can calculate that you in the US are receiving more than 50 millisieverts of Fukushima radiation a year (half the dose proved to cause cancer), I'll go on 56 dates with your skeezy cousin Fred.

Until then Fred better find a hobby.

1 comment:

  1. The palpation of the thyroid is very inaccurate method and requires long training; the ultrasound should be used for this purpose after the cold is gone; the upper normal limit for thyroid size in adult females is 18 cu cm; the average size is 7 cu cm.
    A young woman from Belarus who was born in 1987 claims that she has swollen thyroid due to Chernobyl; however the real reason is iodine deficiency; after living for 2 years in the US she had another ultrasound which demonstrated reduction of her thyroid size to normal. While her vibrant young body may still be contaminated with long living isotopes, her goiter had nothing to do with Chernobyl I-131 release. I could speculate that the foregoing thyroid issues will be automatically contributed to the Japanese nuclear disaster. Thanks for reading