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Since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan, hundreds of millions of people around the world have experienced understandable and justifiable anxiety about the health threat of radioactive fallout from the Sendai reactors.

A Personal Perspective on Taking the Right Steps at the Right Time

In this article, I will list some practical concerns and practical steps for protecting health, written with people outside of Japan in mind.

But first, since anxiety is a personal experience, I will offer my personal perspective on this crisis. In this article I offer facts of general validity, mixed with facts from strictly personal experience.

In 1949 through 1951 my mother, who was American, had a very unusual college roommate. The roommate's name was Ruth Nagamora.

Ruth was Japanese, more specifically Ainu, and a member of a Christian, Universalist church. Being either Ainu or a Univeralist was not a plus in wartime Japan. At the age of 13, Ruth had been sent from her home on Hokkaido, with an uncle, to work in a sub- sub-basement in a factory in Nagasaki. On the day the atomic bomb was dropped about 2 km (1.2 miles) away, she was at work 13 meters/40 feet underground, and her uncle was at home in their hut.

Atomic bombs don't send out shock waves and heat equally in all directions, and it happened that the top floors of the factory vaporized but the sub-basements were intact, leaving Ruth an escape exit. She found the remnants of her hut, and a porcelain skeleton where her uncle's tatami mat would be. Ruth herself,  however, was not even sick. And in a few years she was on her way to America.

A Hiroshima Survival Story

Ruth aspired to be a teacher of English, and wound up at a college in Belton, Texas, the same year my mother arrived. My mother had come with her life savings of $12. Ruth was not allowed to carry American money at all. The US Department of State allowed Japanese citizens to enter the country, but not to engage in any commercial activity, even handling US money. Ruth was strictly dependent on strangers in a formerly enemy country.

Both teenaged women were assigned to the same extremely cheap room as roommates. My father's sister was the third roommate, and a lifelong friendship (as well as my parents' marriage) began. This was all the more amazing because my father had been a US Marine who had been in the first landing at the Battle of Palau and fought two weeks on Okinawa.

Ruth got her degree, returned to Japan, married, and had two healthy children in the 1950's. When I was born, she sewed a baby kimono and sent it to my parents in Texas. I first learned some Japanese from her letters to me. We were undoubtedly the only family in Granger, Texas to have Ainu art on our living room walls.

In 1967, my parents were at the point of committing another unpardonable (for their time, in America) social sin. Their first unpardonable social sin, twenty years earlier, was having given a Japanese visitor spending money for Coca-Cola, pencils, tampons (which I understand Ruth praised as the most wonderful of all American inventions), and underwear. Their second unpardonable social sin, back in the time when World War II was still a frequent topic of discussion, was saving up to go to the Tokyo Olympics in 1968.

We didn't go. A few months before we were to leave we learned that Ruth had died of leukemia. And about the same time an American family member who had been a POW in Hiroshima, also working in a factory deep below ground, also died of leukemia. But the story of both my Japanese friend and American cousin was that even massive radiation does not necessarily extinguish human life. Now let's look at other radiation releases in recent history and see how people survived them.

Chernobyl Probably Isn't the Best Comparison for Sendai

For two weeks, news commentators have been comparing the nuclear radiation leaks at Sendai to the radiation leaks at Chernobyl in 1986. This probably is not the most useful comparison for understanding the risk for health. After all, the US alone exploded 15 nuclear weapons above-ground in 1951, 10 in 1952, 11 in 1953, 6 in 1954, 17 (or 14, depending on yield is evaluated) in 1955, 18 in 1956, at least 25 in 1957, at least 57 in 1958, and 39 in 1962, the total number of US above- and below- ground tests at least 1,100.

How much radiation did each test release? Any one of these above-ground nuclear explosions, which were done in North America, not on the other side of the ocean, released at least 100 times more radioactive particles than were released by Chernobyl.

Collectively, Americans have already been exposed to 20,300 times more radioactive fallout from their own country's above-ground nuclear testing than was released from Chernobyl, which, were are being told, was more than is being released from Sendai.

Did America really poison its own citizens in the 1950's and 1960's? At least for Americans living in parts of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona at the time, there is absolutely no doubt it did. The US government even has a compensation program for people who have developed leukemia and lymphoma as a result of exposure to fallout. The US government does not, however, have a program for compensating people who were exposed to radioactive iodine—and many Americans were exposed to radioactive iodine during the nuclear testing era.

Is It Time to Panic in Palo Alto, Peoria, and Poughkeepsie?

Much is being made of the release of radioactive iodine from the nuclear reactors at Sendai, with the US FDA even banning imports of vegetables from farms that never exported vegetables to the US and that no longer exist, but the simple fact is, North Americans have been exposed to radioactive iodine from nuclear testing in far, far greater concentrations for nearly 60 years.

Here is a link to a map showing radioactive iodine exposure in the USA during the test era.

It is not a map of radioactive iodine exposure from Sendai.

During the 1950's and 1960's, a few counties in the United States had radioactive iodine exposures of up to 16 rads, rads being an obsolete unit for radiation. (For those of you who are technically inclined, 1 rad is equivalent to the absorption of 0.01 joules of energy in one kilo of any material; the modern measurement sevierts refers specifically to absorption by human tissue.) The maximum 16 rad dose back in the early 1960's is equivalent to 160 millisevierts.

The effect of 188 above-ground nuclear explosions caused some Americans to absorb 160 millisevierts of radiation. That's equivalent to:

  • 5 mammograms,
  • 3 CT scans of the brain, or
  • 1 CT scan of the abdomen.
Or it's the amount of radiation you'd get smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day for a year, or eating 1,600,000 bananas. The nuclear plant workers in Japan have not been allowed exposure to more than 250 millisevierts an hour, inside the plants. That's about 0.8% of the amount of radiation released inside Chernobyl. So, is it time to panic in Palo Alto, Peoria, and Poughkeepsie?

Ann Coulter Is Absolutely Wrong

American political commentator Ann Coulter recently commented that "a little radiation is good for you." That's absolutely wrong. Radiation damages DNA, and damaged DNA leads to all kinds of health problems. (This presumes you do not favor the creation of mutants, which may be a political issue.)

The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not just susceptible to higher rates of cancer, especially leukemia and lymphoma, they also had higher rates of heart disease. Americans who lived in the vicinity of Las Vegas during the nuclear testing era also have higher rates of lymphoma and kidney cancer, and even in 2011, people in the USA get about 50 per cent more background radiation (about 3 millisevierts a year, compared to 2) than the rest of the world because of nuclear testing 50 years ago.

A single CT scan, however, exposes an individual to 100 times more radiation than the fallout from over 100 air-burst nuclear bombs. The radiation danger isn't coming from Japan. It's already here. And it's been here for half a century.

Some things seem obvious to some observers, but not to others. There is no need to rip out your backyard garden and plan to live on frozen food. There is no need to rush out to pay 1,000 times the manufacturing costs for potassium iodide, unless you are in Sendai or the exclusion zone around it, in which case you aren't reading this article and you are getting your potassium iodide for free.

There is no need to scour the Internet for radiation monitoring sites and there is no need throw out milk and dairy products. If you live outside Japan, you don't have any radiation dangers this week that you have not have had for 50 years. But that doesn't mean you don't have any radiation dangers. It just means that you probably haven't heard of them before. So what can you do?

Practical Steps for Protecting Yourself from the Radiation That's Already Here

While there is no need to be alarmed about radiation from Sendai, there is plenty of reason to be alarmed about the massive amounts of radiation to which we are already exposed in everyday life. Don't focus on avoiding fallout your bodies have been absorbing since birth. Focus on fortifying yourself against the radiation you have already exposed. Here's how.

1. Don't take massive doses of iodine to protect yourself from radioactive iodine that isn't in your environment. Make sure you get regular doses of iodine for general health. You may have to wait until the current hysteria calms down before you can get iodine supplements again.

It's an especially bad idea to try to get your megadose of iodine by painting yourself with iodine antiseptics. Your skin won't transmit the iodine, but the fumes can cause lung damage. There are people who have developed emphysema after a single exposure to iodine fumes.

2. Don't stop eating fresh fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants in fresh fruits and vegetables, which start to decay the same day they are picked, protect your DNA against the effects of radiation. It is best to buy them locally grown. If you buy your produce from local farmers, you will at least know whether they (or your general area) has been exposed to fallout or any other environmental hazard, unlike buying imported produce. And it tastes better, too.

3. Don't stop using dairy products because you are concerned about radioactive iodine in milk. If anything, the major contaminant in milk would be radioactive cesium—which remains in the environment far longer than radioactive iodine. Again, buying local gives you greater security. You may not know about milk from other states and other countries, but you can much more easily stay informed about milk safety in your own location.

The danger of radiation is already here. It's not time to panic, but it is time to start doing something about it.

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  • Photo courtesy of Wikipedia: (Source: Slightly modified (whitespace made transparent, converted to PNG) from Study Estimating Thyroid Doses of I-131 Received by Americans From Nevada Atmospheric Nuclear Bomb Test, National Cancer Institute (1997)
  • Photo courtesy of