There has been much hype about radiation danger since the recent tragic events in Japan. Right off the bat let me dispel several common fears. As of this writing there is absolutely no need for anyone on the west coast to take potassium iodide pills to prevent thyroid cancer. There has been no significant increase in the local levels of radioactive iodine here on the West Coast, and unless conditions at the Fukushima plant radically change, it is unlikely that we will receive dangerous levels here.
Why are people talking about taking potassium iodide pills? Medical documentation of the health effects from exposure to atomic test fallout demonstrate that exposure to radioactive iodine played a key role in the development of thyroid cancer and some forms of leukemia as well. Potassium iodide, if taken before exposure to fallout, helped to block the uptake and reduced the chance of developing cancer. However, ingestion of potassium iodide also has its own adverse health risks. So it only makes sense to take this preventative measure if advised, that is if we know for sure that dangerous levels of fallout are headed our way.
While winds do blow from Japan east to our shores, wind, rain, and time do take a toll on these toxic plumes, with only trace amounts reaching this coast. Given the current air quality, our locally grown food, especially milk, milk products, and fresh produce remain safe to consume. Again, radioactive levels on the coast have not changed significantly. Areas in northeast Japan are, so far, the only reported areas of concern.
And in the event that Japan’s nuclear disaster does further deteriorate, most authorities agree that the worst case scenario for California would be increasing levels of radioactive compounds, but at extremely small levels that would cause us no harm. We, as a society, had greater radioactive exposure during nuclear bomb testing in the 1950-70s than we have now or might possibly expect under Japan’s worst case scenario.
It is well demonstrated that too much radiation exposure can cause cancer many years later and that the young are at greatest risk. What is not known is how much or how long of an exposure to radiation is risky. Researchers can’t just count cancer cases after a disaster and draw any conclusions as to whether radiation was actually the cause. Cancer rates before and after a disastrous exposure must be compared to know if more cases occurred than would be expected, and even then conclusions are often controversial.
Truth be told, we as a society should worry more about the toxic effects to our bodies from exposure to tobacco products, alcohol and illicit drug use, than we should worry about health risks from current radiation exposure. So what’s my health advice in these times of stress? Take the time to be informed, eat healthy, be active, and be happy.
My next article will explain how radiation affects our health.