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.