Radiation Risks at a Glance

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It’s easy to be afraid and nervous regarding the recent news from Japan when it’s described in such ominous terms. There is no question that the earthquake and resulting loss of life and property has been tragic and sudden.

The nature of news reporting often dwells on the negative and inflammatory. The repetition also sets an ominous and foreboding tone; however, closer examination of the facts is necessary to understand the implications to the rest of the global community and to each of us as individuals. The dread of something catastrophic over which you have no control serves to increase our fear and anxiety about the circumstances.

Radiation is one of those perils that is invisible and something that most people understand only through science fiction movies. Typically when it comes to the unknown, the average person is prone to be suspicious, confused, anxious and distrustful. The reality is the science of radiation, its capabilities and risks are well understood. The radiation released from a nuclear power accident is different than that of a nuclear bomb. Even allowing for the explosions that have occurred at Japanese nuclear reactors there is a vast difference in the type of radiation released. It is nothing like a nuclear bomb as seen on footage from testing in the Nevada desert or the old films of World War II.

Within 10 to 50 miles of the disaster, important risks both short- and long-term exist. Fortunately, we are some 5,000 miles away. For decades, a very good network throughout the U.S. monitors every day in real time the amount of radiation in the atmosphere. This was very effective in understanding the risks of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and several other international nuclear power plant accidents. This is being supplemented by portable monitors along areas of the U.S. West Coast. Fear simply need not be part of the conversation.

What do you need to know and understand? The amount of radiation that is likely to reach the United States is very small compared to the amount of background radiation to which we are already exposed on a daily basis. No one needs to take any specific actions at this time. It is unlikely that anything will need to be done in the U.S. to protect ourselves as there is no particular risk from the events in Japan.

Of note is the distribution by the Japanese health officials of potassium iodide to individuals in local areas of possible contamination. Potassium iodide has limited usefulness for protection against thyroid cancer from exposure to radioactive iodide, a dangerous isotope commonly released in a nuclear power accident. Timing and dosing are critical. It should only be used by those most at risk, which include infants, children and young adults. It is not 100% effective and does not protect against other types of cancer. There are potential side effects even though it is sold without a prescription. The Center for Disease Control does not recommend any action of this kind at all for anyone in the U.S. nor do they anticipate this being necessary from the current disaster in Japan. Do not be fooled or misinformed on this point.

Events are still ongoing with a final chapter yet to come; however, considering the distance from the source of radiation in Japan to the U.S., there is little concern at this point. The dilution and scattering of radiation over long distances keeps the amount in the atmosphere rather low. Is any extra radiation to be avoided? Of course it is, however, there are more significant risks, which are actually trivial, much closer to home. As my colleagues have so aptly pointed out, there is greater risk from environmental radiation in Denver than in Tokyo, which is less than 150 miles from the disaster site.

Being mindful about disasters in the world while understanding the facts is the best thing you can do. If you have further questions or concerns, consult your primary healthcare provider or local health department for information. The Center for Disease Control remains a reliable resource for good current advice.

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