A Primer on Radiation

We are all concerned for the Japanese after their recent, unheard of, triple cataclysm of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. The catastrophe was horrendous and the photo-footage of the disaster is mind numbing and knee buckling. And next on our minds, occurring on the heels of the Haiti earthquake is what’s next for Japan: infectious disease epidemics and, even more frightening, nuclear fallout. Although I’ve addressed the issue of the Chernobyl nuclear fallout on male infertility in prior posts, it’s fresh in our minds again after “3-11” in Japan.
Radiation is scary. You can’t see it but you know it’s there. It’s like the adult version of ghosts for kids. Technically, radiation is a simple form of matter or energy like any other and was first defined in the 19th century when Bavarian professor Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays. Nuclear radiation, like X-rays, is a form of “ionizing radiation,” which is energy that strips orbiting electrons from atoms forming charged particles called ions and creating molecules called “free radicals.” These substances are damaging to living systems, as they don’t behave as their neutral counterparts do, and generally mess up the physics and chemistry of life.

The First List: Typical Radiation Exposure

We are all exposed to radiation every day as it a part of the normal environment in which we live. In fact, if you are interested in calculating your annual exposure to radiation, click on this EPA website. You’d be amazed at what actually contributes to our radiation exposure every day: breathing air at different altitudes, airplane flights, luminous watch dials, irradiated (sterilized) food, watching TV, using a computer, having teeth with porcelain fillings or crowns or a wearing plutonium pacemaker to name a few. For perspective, here is a list of radiation levels from just living and breathing and also from common medical procedures:

The Second List: Radiation Exposure and Disease

  • 100 mSv= Radiation dose causing temporary loss of sperm counts
  • 500 mSv= Radiation dose causing permanent male sterility
  • 170 mSv= Average per person exposure to radiation in the Ukraine in the year of the Chernobyl meltdown (1986)
  • 30 mSv= Average exposure in the Ukraine two years after Chernobyl (1988)
  • 1000 mSv= (Single dose) causes non-fatal, temporary radiation sickness (nausea, vomiting, low white blood cell count)
  • 1000 mSv= (Accumulated dose) significant increased risk of cancer, premature aging
  • 10,000 mSv= (Single dose) fatal radiation sickness

The Third List: Japanese Radiation Levels

  • 400 mSv/hour= Peak radiation levels at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, March 14, 2011
  • 173-181 mSv= Range of exposures of three nuclear plant workers
  • 20-50 mSv= Radiation levels in tainted milk from Japan
  • 5-10 mSv= Radiation levels in tainted spinach from Japan
  • Unclear= Radiation levels in canola and chrysanthemum greens
  • Unclear= Levels of radioactive iodine in Tokyo tap water

The Anti Radiation Diet

We are certainly concerned for the Japanese in their time of need. Should we also be concerned about nuclear fallout 5000 miles away? All federal agencies and most experts feel we shouldn’t be. However, if that answer is just not good enough, consider the anti-radiation diet:

  • Miso soup
  • Kelp (natural iodine helps prevent the uptake of iodine-131)
  • Brassica vegetables (rutabaga, turnips, cabbage, sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli)
  • Beans and lentils
  • Potassium, calcium and mineral rich foods
  • High nucleotide content foods (yeast, sardines, liver, anchovies, mackerel)
  • A good multivitamin supplement enriched with antioxidants