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04.06.2011 - 08:24AM

Category: Health & Wellness

Radiation is Harmless; Heck, It's Even Good For You!

Francescacsr

By CSRwire Contributing Writer Francesca Rheannon

Part One of a two-part series

The media - and some environmentalists - have got it all wrong on radiation hazards.

OK, OK, I know it's a little late for an April Fools' headline, but the real joke is on the media. From NPR to Fox, the media appear to be swallowing the nuclear power industry's soothing nostrums that the radiation streaming out of the Fukushima Daiichi Plant into the air and water and migrating around the world is at levels that "pose no significant impact on human health." The patsies include environmental writer and nuclear power booster, George Monbiot.

There's little debate that high levels of radiation are bad for people and other living things, but even there, the complacency of the Japanese government apparently knows no bounds: on April 11, despite the discovery of "high radiation" levels about 40 km from the stricken plant - well outside the evacuation zone - the government said it had "no plans" to widen the zone, even though the levels exceed IAEA (whose mission is to promote nuclear power) guidelines for evacuation.

But what about "low levels" of radiation? It's a controversial (one might even say "radioactive") subject. Before we pick it up with our hazmat suit-sheathed hands, let's be clear first what it is not. More than 11 million tons of "low level" radioactive water is being released into the ocean waters around Fukushima. This "low-level" contamination is raising radiation levels in the sea around the plant to more than seven million times the legal limit (legal limits are determined by politics, as well as science, so they often exceed what scientists say are safe levels). It has been found at 4,000 times the legal limit as far as 40 km from the plant's shore.

We hear the radioactive releases are "having a limited effect on seafood." (Note, the present tense - more on this below.) But the fish are already exceeding the Japanese government's newly minted limits for radiation in seafood.

So how low level is it? The water may be low level (Compared to what? The much higher levels in the water still in the plant?) But so much is being released, it's raising radioactivity levels to those millions of times higher than normal, already contaminating the seafood above legal limits.

Now, about that present tense claim of a "limited effect" on seafood. Yes, the fish are still swimming. They haven't succumbed to acute radiation sickness. But most of us care about fish because we eat them. We want to know if the seafood is "safe" to eat. So let's follow the pathway of a fish, say tuna, to our plate to examine the claims of radiation safety.

The inconvenient truth is radioactive contamination observes the same biological laws as other kinds of contamination in living beings. Like the mercury in tuna, it bioaccumulates, concentrating exponentially as it travels up the food chain.

Lowest beings on the food chain - ones the whole pyramid of life in the sea depend on - are plankton. When they take up radioactive iodine-131, for example (just to take the shortest-lived isotope of the ones being released into the ocean and air), they concentrate it in their tissues to orders of magnitude higher (800 times, Diane D'Arrigo, Radioactive Waste Project Director at the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, told CSRwire) than what it is in the water - which, remember is already 7.5 million times the legal limit. When little fish eat the plankton, they concentrate the iodine-131 higher again. When the tuna eat the little fish, well, you get the idea. By the time that tuna reaches your sushi plate, it's a tidy little packet laced with radionucleides.

By then, the nuclear industry experts and their supporters assure us, the radioactivity will be gone. The half-life of iodine-131 is merely eight days. That's true. But the half-life of what is left is also eight days. In fact, it takes about six months for iodine-131 to completely decay. Another radionucleide that has been detected at the plant, iodine-129, has a half life of 16 million years; strontium-90, which is taken up into the bones of animals and fish and has also been released, has a half life of 28 years; cesium-137, which goes to muscle and organ tissue, of 30 years. And it's still being emitted and likely to continue so for months.

Whether the half-life is eight days or 16 million years, the fact is it's enough time to make it to your plate in a form much more concentrated than when it was measured in the ocean.

That's something George Monbiot and other nuke boosters either don't understand or don't want you to. There's a big difference between the effects of radiation that stay in the external environment and radiation that will get inside you. When you eat it, breathe it or it gets inside you through breaks in the skin or through penetrating through the body’s tissues, it is dangerous. (Alpha radiation is stopped by skin - unless it's breathed in or ingested, as everyone who has had to vent radon out of their basement knows. Beta radiation is given off by iodine-131 - it can penetrate through skin a small way into the body. And gamma radiation, given off by cesium-137 and iodine-129, goes all the way through you.)

Take a report from NPR's Morning Edition on April 5. Reporter John Hamilton asks a Japanese nuclear researcher whether ocean-going fish that show up on sashimi platters - like salmon and tuna - might be contaminated by radioactive material from the power plant. The expert reassures him, "I don't think so, because tuna move everywhere. They travel, you know, maybe hundreds of kilometers, so they never stay there." Hamilton dutifully swallows the story, telling listeners, "A tuna might swim by the Fukushima plant. But it wouldn't hang around long enough to become seriously contaminated." Maybe so, John - as long as it doesn't eat any of the local fish and then end up on your plate.

That's one reason the old, long-discredited canard being trotted out, "the solution to pollution is dilution," is wrong about the hazards. The other has to do with how radioactivity operates in the body. More on that tomorrow.

About Francesca Rheannon

Francesca is CSRwire's Talkback Managing Editor. Before becoming an award-winning journalist, Francesca worked for more than two decades as an environmental and occupational health educator. She was a HAZWOPER trainer for the The New England Consortium at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and was director of the Western Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. Francesca's work has appeared at SocialFunds.com, The CRO, E Magazine and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

This commentary is written by a valued member of the CSRwire contributing writers' community and expresses this author's views alone.

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