Japan vs. Three Mile Island

Dear Health Conscious Reader,

Does it occur to you that they’re doing the same thing in Tokyo that they did in Three Mile aIsland?

Back in 1979 – exactly 32 years ago yesterday – they were telling everybody for the first couple of weeks not to worry. Then they told everyone to stay inside. Then they evacuated. And then they finally told everyone the truth – that it was a dangerous radiation leak.

And radiation is the biggest fear people in America have from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant was damaged, and the situation keeps getting worse.

They’ve told the people around the plant to stay indoors or leave, but I don’t know how those poor people could leave. It seems like the roads are all blocked or damaged. Most of them are stuck there, being exposed to radiation day after day.

And some of that radiation is coming toward the U.S.

Some of it will fall with rain into the Pacific Ocean.

Once there, the iodine and cesium will combine with the salt in sea water to turn into very common elements sodium iodide and cesium chloride. And they’ll then spread out into the Pacific Ocean and become diluted.

This is not at the level of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia, where plutonium was found hundreds of miles away in the soil of Sweden.

But they are detecting radiation from Japan on the coast of Washington state.

Don’t let them tell you the radiation from nuclear fuel is in any way the same as other kinds of radiation.

In fact, this is one of the biggest things they gloss over when looking at the magnitude of radiation exposure, and trying to convince you that this is negligible.

When you get radiation from the sun, you are built for it. We all get that kind of radiation for our entire life, so you have natural defensive mechanisms that evolved on this planet for billions of years. That is our native environment – you’re built for it.

But if you then go to the airport, they give you an x-ray body scan, and they say “Don’t worry, this is less radiation than you get from one day at the beach.”

Well, that one day at the beach is something that you are built to defend yourself against, and x-rays from a newly created technology are different in ways we may not even know about yet.

It may be that you can measure your total exposure to radiation, and get a quantification so you can compare radiation from scans and z-rays and nuclear blasts to radiation from the natural source, but that’s where the similarities end.

It’s a totally different kind of radiation. It’s a different exposure, it’s coming from a different source, it has a different level of energy… the only thing that’s the same is the quantity. But the character of the radiation is entirely unrelated, and is something that is unnatural to you.

Who knows if standing in front of that scanner and exposing your gonads to it, or standing on the beach in Washington state, is safe or not? No one can say that it’s safe just because it’s the same quantity as a day at the beach. That’s a big presumption that there’s no evidence for.

Any level of new radiation is something you can’t know the result of.

And people just don’t want it. It’s not something you asked for, and if someone did ask you you’d probably say “Don’t give me any amount.” It’s radiation, and you just don’t want any.

Radiation interferes with your body’s chemistry. Your cellular activity is disrupted by the radioactivity of any particles you may absorb. It breaks the chemical bonds between the atoms and molecules that make up your DNA, tissues and organs.

Too much radiation makes it so that your body either can’t repair the DNA damage, or your DNA makes mistakes during repair. This is when you get radiation-induced cancer.

Radiation is now measured in sieverts. The standard measure is the milisievert (mSv). One mSv is the average accumulated background radiation dose to an individual for 1 year, not including radon, in the United States.

And they still use that benchmark even though most Americans get around 3 mSv a year of background radiation.

A chest x-ray would give you about 0.06 mSv. A typical CT scan exposes you to about 2 mSv.

A worker at a nuclear plant receives 1.6 mSv per year.

A dose of 100 mSv a year is the lowest level at which any increase in cancer is evident.

A single dose of 1,000 mSv causes radiation sickness such as nausea and decreased white blood cell count, but not death.. You get sicker the more you’re exposed to. For example, 5,000 mSv at once will kill about half of the people within a month.

In Japan, according to what we know at the time I’m writing to you, radiation levels near the damaged nuclear plant on Japan’s northeast coast reached as high as 400 mSv an hour.

In Tokyo, more than 100 miles away from the reactor, people will probably have their radiation exposure triple for the year to 4 mSv. This is not a deadly dose of radiation… but there is no threshold.

Any exposure above zero is assumed to give you a greater risk for radiation-induced cancer.

So if you or someone you know is worried about exposure, or has been exposed to radiation, you want to do three things:

Step 1) Prevent further radioactive contamination.

Step 2) Treat damaged organs.

Step 3) Reduce symptoms and manage pain.

To do those three things, you first want to recognize the symptoms of radiation poisoning. Some of the more common things that can happen are:

• Nausea and vomiting
• Bloody nose or mouth
• Bruising
• Dehydration
• Diarrhea
• Fainting
• Hair loss
• Ulcers, swelling or redness
• Weakness

If you have any of these, get yourself to an emergency care facility right away.

Emergency care professionals will then give you one or more of these treatments:

• Potassium iodide. Your thyroid is where all the iodine in your body goes. If there’s radioactive iodine in the air, your thyroid will absorb it like any other iodine, and keep it there.

Potassium iodide is the non-radioactive iodine, and taking it will fill your thyroid so it doesn’t absorb any radioactive iodine. The standard dose is a 130mg pill. Your body will then eliminate radioactive iodine through your urine. This prevents about 99% of the damage you might otherwise get.

• Prussian blue. This type of dye binds to particles of radioactive cesium, the other element released into the air in Japan. You then eliminate the radioactive particles in your stool. What doctors are trying to do with this treatment is speed up the elimination of the radioactive particles so they are not absorbed into your cells.

• Diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA). This is probably not needed for an event like the one in Japan, but it would have been necessary after Chernobyl. DTPA binds to metals, including plutonium, americium and curium. You also eliminate this through your urine, speeding up the process and reducing the amount of radiation absorbed.

• GCSF – If your bone marrow has been affected and you may have trouble producing white blood cells, doctors may give you protein called granulocyte colony-stimulating factor. This helps your body make white blood cells which counter sickness and infection. The names of the drugs are Neupogen and Neulasta.

Here are four important things to remember if you are ever exposed to significant radiation:

1. Don’t apply ointments to radiation burns – These will hold in radioactive particles. Soap and water are best to remove them. Dress any burn and do not change the dressing frequently.

2. Leave irradiated area – Continued exposure is much more harmful that one-time exposure. Going indoors, or getting away from the irradiated area sounds simple, but it reduces exposure.

3. Take off and discard affected clothing – removing these eliminates about 90 percent of radioactive particles.

4. Radiation sickness is not contagious – once you are away from the radiation and the affected person is decontaminated, it is safe to care for them.

To Your Good Health,

Al Sears, MD