What you need to know about...
Radiation, Japan and Protecting your Health
© 2011, Northwest Natural Health Specialty Care Clinic
Radiation from the Japan nuclear meltdown has now breached the containment system and been detected in sea water near the reactor and on land in Washington State. So far the Washington State reported levels are very low. Here is what you need to know to make good decisions and protect your health.
Should I be worried?
The simple answer is “probably not,” but it is a good idea to be informed and prepared. So let's look at the potential risks, the likelihood of significant exposure, and what you can do about it.
What are the risks of radiation?
At low levels, as radiation accumulates in the body over time, there’s an increased risk of getting cancer. This risk increases with increased exposure. Specifically, there are two types of cancer risks.
1. Thyroid Cancer. The radiation exposure from a nuclear powerplant would most likely be an isotope of iodine. In humans, iodine tends to go to the thyroid, meaning that the radioactivity would concentrate in the thyroid and raise the risk for thyroid cancer.
2. Other Cancers. In general, radiation in humans causes free radicals (technically known as reactive oxygen species or ROS) that damage the DNA of healthy cells in our bodies. Since DNA controls many things, including how cells reproduce, long term radiation damage has been shown to cause cells to reproduce uncontrollably and become cancerous.
At higher radiation levels, there is a short-term risk of burns and organ system damage. Thankfully for the west coast of North America, the chance for radiation burns is extremely low to negligible, given the fact that any radiation concentration would be diluted before it reaches us.
What is the likelihood of significant exposure?
Unfortunately, there is no clear answer about the likelihood or magnitude of exposure for our region. It depends on several things, including the ultimate size of the radiation leak, how long it continues to emit radiation into the atmosphere, the direction of surface winds and the position of the jet stream, which is a high altitude wind and the most likely way radiation from Japan would be carried to North America. No one can predict these events at this time.
Hopefully the current radiation leaks will be stopped quickly and the radiation levels that have been published are as minimal as reported. There is concern among many, given the history of Three Mile Island and Hanford, that predictions and actual reports of radiation may not be accurate.
The jet stream, another important part of the equation, can reach speeds as high as 300 miles per hour, is just 200 miles wide and always moves from west to east (i.e. Japan to North America). The path of the jet stream can change daily, so even if there is a disastrous event, it may or may not be in a position to intercept and carry the radiation.
The worst case scenario is a massive radiation leak that encounters easterly surface winds and the center of the jet stream that eventually goes over our region. In such an event, it could reach us in less than a day and continue to bring radiation into our area until the winds change, which could be hours or weeks.
The likelihood of all those things happening is relatively small, but not zero. If it did happen, there would be a limited time to respond.
So what can I do to protect myself?
There are a number of strategies that limit the risk:
1. The first and most obvious is to avoid contact with the radiation. If there is enough warning, stay indoors, turn off heating and ventilation that bring in outside air, and have a supply of clean water and foods that doesn’t require a lot of preparation or refrigeration. Moving from the west coast to Texas or Florida may not help.
2. Use a variety of antioxidants, which can quench some of the harmful free radicals caused by radiation before they can damage the DNA of cells.
3. Iodine supplements may be useful at careful dosages.
But, before you rush out to buy these products, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind.
If you are healthy and not on any medication, a traditional antioxidant combination supplement is probably fine. If you are being treated for any disease, and especially cancer or heart disease, we strongly suggest that you ask your treating provider, or a doctor familiar with the pharmacology of antioxidants, to prepare a plan that does not interfere with your treatment. With iodine and some other supplements, be certain that you are taking an appropriate amount, since too little has no value and too much can result in serious thyroid side effects.
If you have had prior radiation exposure from treatment or elsewhere, it is even more important that you adopt a protective plan.
Want to be proactive and have a plan in place?
Our naturopathic physicians are available to develop a protective supplemental program tailored specifically for you. These appointments are brief and relatively inexpensive. Existing Northwest Natural Health® patients will get first priority, but we have openings for new patients, as well. We also have a stock of antioxidants, iodine and other agents that may be prescribed.
In summary, we sincerely hope none of this preparation is needed, but if it is, we are prepared to support our patients and our community. To get more information or to schedule an appointment, call us at 206-784-9111.