Radioactive Marker

This article in today’s New York Times is not panic-inducing, but neither is it reassuring…

Tests of milk samples taken last week in Spokane, Wash., indicate the presence of radioactive iodine from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, but at levels far below those at which action would have to be taken, the Environmental Protection Agency said on Wednesday.

The problem arises when materials that emit beta particles are ingested or inhaled. Iodine 131 is chemically identical to normal, nonradioactive iodine and thus is absorbed into the body just as normal iodine is, mainly in the thyroid gland, where it delivers a concentrated dose to that small organ and can cause cancer.

In the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1986, the biggest health effect was cases of thyroid cancer, especially in children living near the nuclear plant in Ukraine.

Go to NYT for more on the short half-life of Iodine 131.

Radioactive Iodine 131 is used in medicine to diagnose and treat thyroid cancer. When a person has cancer, radiation therapy is lifesaving and a good risk, but note that there are precautions against exposing the general public…

Radioactive iodine can also be taken up by cells lining the stomach. Some patients may experience nausea, stomach upset and rarely vomiting, for which relief in the form of medications such as Gravol can be provided…

Female patients of reproductive age should have a pregnancy test done at the time of admission to make sure they are not pregnant. Patients may not have visitors during the initial period of their hospitalization. Close body contact, or hugging/kissing, or having subsequent visitors eat or drink in the room is strongly discouraged. The radiation levels will be checked to ensure your levels are sufficiently low prior to discharge.

Should we be worried about the milk in Spokane? If I were pregnant or the mother of a small child I would err on the side of caution. For this specific instance, I tend to believe that the risk to older adults is very low. I see it more as a diagnostic test of our planet.

Each incident of radiation from Fukushima appearing elsewhere in the world is a marker for the swiftness, ease and persistence of radioactive contamination far from the site of a nuclear disaster.

We have put a radioactive marker into the circulation of the air and water of our planet. Nuclear enthusiasts continue to claim ‘no immediate risk’ but the deeper message is clear. Nuclear pollution circles the globe, affecting people far from the benefits and far from the decision to build bombs and power plants. The benefit does not justify the risks.

SPREADING CONTAMINATION: This last October there were reports of hospitals and clinics administering radioactive iodine and sending the patients out to motel rooms and homes without proper screening and instruction. A man on a bus set off radiation alarms on the highway, motel maids and guests had measurable contamination just from being in the same rooms. Link to the story here.

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7 responses

  1. “Should we be worried about the milk in Spokane? If I were pregnant or the mother of a small child I would err on the side of caution.”

    “Each incident of radiation from Fukushima appearing elsewhere in the world…
    Nuclear pollution circles the globe, affecting people far from the benefits and far from the decision to build bombs and power plants. The benefit does not justify the risks.”

    Nuclear enthusiasts are promoting the only realistic way to REDUCE the worldwide levels of radioactive contamination. Coal power spews many times as much raw nuclear ore into the sky as a nuclear plant does. Really.

    If you’re concerned with ‘the milk in Spokane’, you should stay the heck away from bananas, and never ever sleep next to another person. A healthy banana has -51 times- the level of radioactivity as a pint of the milk in Spokane that’s got you spooked.

    Do you think pregnant women should ‘err on the side of caution’ and not eat bananas? Sleep alone in lead-lined chambers?

    I know you’re all for ‘green energy’, but we realistically can’t switch over yet. The MOST AMBITIOUS plan we have, Deepwater, would cost a quarter of the entire state budget, provide only 15% of our demands, and produces energy that costs more than double our already high rates. Conservation efforts have shown that you can only eke out a few percent of savings, not the 85% energy reduction we’d need to get away from coal.

    In the meantime, coal power is putting an order of magnitude more radiation into your yard, your lungs, and your milk. Not to mention the carbon, the soot, the mercury, etc.. The more you push back on nuclear, the more you’re tacitly endorsing 50-year old plant re-certifications and coal power.

  2. As you know, there are different kinds of radioactive isotopes that decay at different rates and have different properties.
    Radioactive iodine is not the immediate risk, but it’s a marker for the fast dispersal of radioactive dust from Fukushima. There are much more lethal radioactive products.
    Cesium 137 has been found at unsafe levels 25 miles from Fukushima. It has a half-life of 30 years and causes cancer. Authorities are considering whether to evacuate the area.
    Yes, I’d worry and probably stop drinking milk if I was pregnant and lived on the West Coast. Radioactive exposure is additive. Natural exposure, coal and nuclear are all in our environment. We measure exposure in years and lifetimes.
    I don’t accept that our only choices are nuclear power or dirty combustion. We have not begun to use the full potential of conservation and smart use, or to move the money from oil and nuclear to renewable energy research and startups.

    1. “Yes, I’d worry and probably stop drinking milk if I was pregnant and lived on the West Coast.”

      Then bananas are totally out of the question, right? I really don’t understand the logic of saying “well a healthy banana is emitting 51 times the radiation as this milk (.7Bq/l) that has a few atoms from Japan in it, but the banana is healthy, and the milk is not”. Meanwhile, normal, healthy -air- emits 5-15Bq per cubic meter. It’s like saying “I chain-smoke all day, but I skip the cigarette on the way to work because that’s the one that will give me cancer”. As it stands, drinking milk from Spokane exposes you to as much ‘extra’ radiation as staying indoors for a few minutes vs. being in your backyard.

      “Radioactive exposure is additive. Natural exposure, coal and nuclear are all in our environment. We measure exposure in years and lifetimes.”

      Yes, exposure is additive, and human immune systems are running 24/7 as well. If this milk would raise your dose by a level that’s virtually unmeasurable compared to say, the potassium in your own body emitting hundreds of times the radiation, it’s of no consequence.

      “I don’t accept that our only choices are nuclear power or dirty combustion. We have not begun to use the full potential of conservation and smart use, or to move the money from oil and nuclear to renewable energy research and startups.”

      My little sister said something similar a few weeks ago on Facebook. She said “I don’t accept ‘supply and demand'”, as if it was something that was up for debate. There is no debate. There’s no way we can conserve enough to make our energy needs fit within our capacity to build green energy resources. Let’s do some very loose math:

      Current electricity price in RI: $0.14/KWh
      Cost of energy from Deepwater wind: $0.26/KWh

      (so double your electric bill monthly)

      But you haven’t actually -built- the wind farm yet. Since Deepwater will cost $1.3B to provide 15% of our needs… Let’s blow it up to 100% of our needs… That’s $8.6B, or about $9,000 per resident of the state; about thirty times the size of next year’s state budget deficit.

      So.. Assuming we amortize the cost of ‘Deepwater II’ over 20 years, that’s about $550M/year extra to build infrastructure PLUS doubling everyone’s electric bill forever.

      The most ambitious ‘smart usage’ and conservation investments would only net us about 15% savings on the consumption side, and those are costly, too.

      I’m not against green energy. I WISH we COULD go 100% that way, but the technology isn’t there to meet our needs yet. Until there are room-temperature superconductors, we’re stuck with mostly burning stuff or nuclear. I’d much rather accept that fact and replace these aging nukes and dirty coal operations with modern nuclear facilities that are (by many estimates) 1,600 times safer than the older designs we’re running now (they also are much more efficient, using a LOT less fuel to generate the same energy). That will buy us the 50-100 years of carbon-free cheap energy we can use until green energy is actually feasible.

      1. When I was pregnant, I became very conservative and risk-adverse. I wouldn’t blame mothers for taking the most cautious approach to potential contamination in their food.
        I’m of an age to remember Thalidomide, and the consequences of pushing an untested drug on pregnant women. The ‘push’ was the profit motive of big industry, that knew best. That kind of history will make an impression, and leave a sense of respect for our responsibility to future generations.

  3. Immediately after the tsunami, the nuclear industry was saying that the condition of the reactors at Fukushima was a success story. I haven’t heard that in a while.
    You don’t make any distinction between different forms of radiation. Some are much more dangerous than others. I think that the dispersal of Iodine 131 raises legitimate concerns that more deadly substances could follow the same route, or in the case of heavy substances like Plutonium, leak into the soil and groundwater.
    Workers in Fukushima are calling their families and saying they expect to die soon or in a few years from the radiation exposure.
    Would American corporations protect workers better than the Japanese?
    Would

  4. Stop the lesser of nucular evils “debate”. Solar/electric panels on every roof and an electric car in every garage (not to mention jobs, Jobs, JOBS for US ALL)!

    1. Bruce, where exactly will the money come for these solar panels? I just went to a solar installer’s calculator and to supply my very small home’s very low needs, it would take a $46K investment, and it would put two guys to work for about four days.

      The system would only pay for itself after about 20 years, at which point it would need to be replaced.

      As far as I can tell, ‘a solar panel on every roof’ would make even less sense than Deepwater wind. It would also just barely scrape the surface of the jobs issue.

      Something that probably -does- make sense is to evaluate small-scale hydroelectric power. Between the Blackstone, the Woonasquatucket, and the Pawtucket rivers, we could probably get cost-effective ‘green power’ to a bunch of communities.

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