Who’ll Stop the Rain? Fukushima, Radiation, and What You Can and Can’t Do To Protect Yourself And Others

Unfortunately, when last I checked there was no one in a position to stop the rain, and although there may be some actions you can take that I missed, it isn’t possible to protect oneself entirely from radiation.  I have learned a lot recently, though, and summarize the high points I remember, and some of my questions, here, along with sources you can consult yourself.

First, there is no safe dose of radiation.  That is absolutely clear.  The National Academy of Sciences recently concluded that the preponderance of scientific evidence shows even very low doses of radiation pose a risk of cancer or other health problems and it is unlikely that a threshold exists below which exposure can be viewed as harmless.  (1)  According to Richard R. Monson, chairman of the review panel and a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionized radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial.”

Comforting statements about the safety of low radiation are not even accurate for adults.  (2)  “Small increases in risk per individual have immense consequences in the aggregate.  When low risk is accepted for billions of people, there will be millions of victims.  New research on risks of x-rays illustrate the point….[For example, c]ommon, low-dose dental x-rays more than double the rate of thyroid cancer.  Those exposed to repeated dental x-rays have an even higher risk of thyroid cancer.”  (3)

Second, it appears we are already being exposed to radiation from the Fukushima disaster, and that it’s likely to get worse.  This, despite the repeated assurances from various authorities that the levels detected so far are safe, or pose no health risk, generally because the doses to which we might be exposed are too low to threaten human health.  See my first point, above.

But, not to worry, “…the EPA is considering drastically raising the amount of allowable radiation in food, water, and the environment.”  (4)  Assuming that what is allowable must also be safe, I sure hope they do it soon!

Third, the fact that radiation is not being detected does not mean it is not in the vicinity.  “That the radiation is being released 5,000 miles away isn’t as comforting as it seems….Every day, the jet stream carries pollution from Asian smoke stacks and dust from the Gobi Desert to our West Coast….Half the mercury in the atmosphere over the entire US originates in China….A week after a nuclear weapons test in China, iodine 131 could be detected in the thyroid glands of deer in Colorado, although it could not be detected in the air or in nearby vegetation.” (5)

Fourth, the means of protection are not entirely clear, and in any case, there is no way to shield oneself entirely from radiation exposure.  Potassium iodide (KI) can protect the thyroid gland, but you have to know when to take it, that is, when the exposure occurs.  And you should consult a health professional to determine appropriate dosage, as too much can be harmful.  (6)  And KI does not prevent radioactive iodine from entering the body, exposing other glands, nor does it protect against other radioactive exposures.  Other isotopes are “dangerous to humans including strontium-90, cesium, iodine, plutonium, and tranuranium elements, since they can be absorbed by the human body.”  (7)

I have been interested to see workers in Japan wearing masks that look like ordinary surgical masks, but have not been able to determine what the masks are actually composed of or what if any protection they provide.

I have not been able to put enough time into this matter to get definitive information.  But I encourage you to conduct your own research, and list below some of the sources I have relied upon in deciding this is a serious problem for which there are at best some partial short-term solutions.

Longer-term, what is most frightening is the continued presence and operation of nuclear plants at Diablo Canyon and San Onofre in California.  The spent fuel rods from these are just a few feet above sea level, and I believe we are just about due for an earthquake here of a similar magnitude to the one that struck Japan.  (8)  On such issues, I suggest looking to Nuclear Information and Resource Service, two of whose facts sheets are cited below.


(1) National Research Council, Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation: Bier VII Phase 2 (National Academies Press, 2006), p. 10.

(2) Brian Moech, MD, “Radiation: Nothing To See Here?,” http://www.truth-out.org, citing Shuryak I, Sachs R, Brenner D, “Cancer Risks After Radiation Exposure in Middle Age,” JNCI J National Cancer Institute Volume 102, issue 21, pp. 1628-1636.

(3) Id., citing Memon A, Godward S, Williams D, et al., “Dental x-rays and the risk of thyroid cancer: A case-control study,” Acta Oncologica, May 2010, Vol. 49, No. 4: 447-453.  For further information and discussion see the Wasserman piece cited below.

(4) Washington’s Blog, http://www.washingtonsblog.com/, cited by Mike Whitney, “Fukushima Fallout Hits the US,” http://www.counterpunch.org/whitney03312011.html.

(5) Brian Moech, MD, footnote (2) above.

(6) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emergency preparedness and Response, “Potassium Iodide (KI),” http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp.

(7) Torres, Marcos, “The Difference Between Radiation and Radioactivity And How To Protect Yourself,” http://preventdisease.com/news/11/031511_radiation_radioactivity.shtml.

(8) Cockburn, Alexander, “In the Midst of Fukushima: Ahoy There, Nuke-Loving Greens, Welcome to the Real World!,” http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn03182011.html.

Additional Sources:

Cockburn, Alex, “Fukushima, Cover-Up Amid Catastrophe,” posted March 25-27, 2011, at http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn03252011.html.

Nuclear Information and Resource Service, www.nirs.org, “Radiation Basics” and “NIRS Fact Sheet – KI.”

St. Clare, Jeffrey, “When Spent Fuel Rods IgnitePools of Nuclear Fire,” http://www.counterpunch.org/stclair03162011.html.

Torres, Marcos, “Admitted Japanese Nuclear Meltdown Now Means Detrimental Health Effects Worldwide,” http://preventdisease.com/news/11/031411_radiation_health_effects.shtml.

Wasserman, Harvey, “There’s No ‘Safe’ Dose of Radiation,” http://www.counterpunch.org/wasserman03292011.html.

Whitney, Mike, several articles in the last several weeks posted at www.counterpunch.org.

Robert Roth is a retired public interest lawyer who worked in consumer protection for the Attorneys General of Oregon and New York.


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