Nuclear Reactor Radiation Health Dangers: A Rational Review

Of the three catastrophes in Japan this month, the most concerning to Americans, particularly those in the west coast, is nuclear reactor radiation fallout from the damaged Fukashima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  I will provide information on types of radiation, including which ones you should be concerned about, what you need to know about potassium iodide, a brief discussion on the benefits of low-level radiation, and my nutrition and functional medicine recommendation for protecting yourself and your family.

Increased levels of radiation have been detected as a result of the damage to the nuclear reactor cooling systems, with the potential meltdown of the core.  Some radioactive vapor has been escaping, which has been a major concern in Japan.  In addition, because of the “jet stream”, that river of air which flows from west to east at speeds up to 200 miles-per hour, there is reasonable concern that radioactive vapor has began to travel across the Pacific Ocean to California.

There is a sound basis for this concern.  Though the fallout to the west coast has already been reported as no nuclear radiation hazards to health outside the immediate vicinity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken the precautionary measure of sending additional radiation monitoring units to Alaska, Hawaii and Guam.  The EPA’s radiation tracking network, known as RadNet, has existing monitoring stations throughout the United States.  The stations regularly collect air, rain, drinking water and milk samples for analysis of radioactivity1.

Right here in my hometown, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the monitoring stations are in the following cities:

  • San Francisco
  • San Jose
  • Richmond

Near real-time data on radiation levels can be accessed at the EPA’s Central Data  Exchange website (http://www.epa.gov/radnet/).

Nuclear Radiation: Putting Things in Perspective for Rational Response

Types of Radiation: Ionizing Versus Non-ionizing Radiation

We are constantly exposed to low levels of radiation from infrared waves, radio waves, cellphone radiation and microwaves.  These are all non-ionizing radiation, or radiation that does not break chemical bonds.  Ionizing radiation is much more dangerous because it does break chemical bonds.  Examples of ionizing radiation are x-rays, gamma rays, and the alpha or beta particles emitted by radioactive elements as they decay.

Most of the radioactivity emitted from the Fukashima plant in Japan is in the form of radiocesium and radioiodine, as byproducts of the fission of uranium in the fuel rods 2 3.  It is not emitting gamma or x-irradiation, which is emitted by a nuclear bomb.  Radiocesium, also called cesium-137, and radioiodine, also called iodine-131, or iodine-129, can damage bodily tissues with excessive exposure.

You may have heard of the potassium iodide that many are rushing out to buy.  When potassium iodide is taken orally, it effectively blocks iodine-131 and iodine-129 from going into the thyroid.  But it does not block cesium-137 from damaging the thyroid or other parts of the body.

Cesium-137

The amount of time any radioactive chemical undergoes radioactive decay to where only half of the chemical remains in it’s original state is called the half-life.  Half-life of a chemical in the environment is called the “physical half-life”.  The half-life of how fast a chemical can be expelled from the body is called the “biologic half-life”.  A chemical in the body may be expelled by effective body detoxification mechanisms, so the biologic half-life may be less than the physical half-life.

The rate of decrease of radiation exposure is then affected by both the physical and biological half-life, giving an “effective half-life”.  The effective half-life of a chemical is the effective time the radioactive material is in your body doing damage.

The half life of cesium-137 in the environment is 30 years4.  Cesium-137 easily spreads through the environment via air, through the soil and in water or milk.  Virtually everyone has been exposed to a very small amount of cesium-137 (less than 1 millirem*) in the soil and water as a result of nuclear weapons testing in the 1950’s and 1960’s and nuclear power plant accidents such as Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, and now Fukashima in 2011.

A Note About Radioactive Doses:
The dose of radiation a person is exposed to
is either in “Roentgen Equivalents in Man” (rems),
or Sieverts” (Sv), the international system of units.
1 Sv is equivalent to 100 rem.

1 rem is a large dose.  So 1 millirem is one thousandth of a rem.
The reported radiation levels at the Fukashima nuclear power plant
on March 16, 2011 reached 10 millisieverts per hour at one point.
That is 10 thousandths of a sievert, or 0.010 Sv.

To put that into perspective, the radiation of a chest x-ray
is 0.1 millisieverts, or 0.0001 Sv.  So, someone at the Fukashima plant
at its peak radiation leakage (so far) was getting the radiation exposure
to their whole body equivalent to 100 chest x-rays per hour!

The exposure diminishes each year cesium-137 decays.  However, cesium-137 released from multiple exposures in the environment results in varying states of decay from each exposure.  If cesium-137 in vapor or dust is breathed in, then internal exposure would result.  Because radiation emitting material is then in the body, leaving the site of exposure will not end the exposure.  However, the good news is that with effective bodily detoxification mechanisms the biologic half-life of cesium-137 is about 70 days, and the effective half-life is 70 days5.

Cesium-137 has an affinity for all body tissues, where iodine-131 (I-131) or iodine-129 (I-129) targets primarily the thyroid gland.

Iodine-131, Iodine-129

Both these radioisotopes are the produced from the process of nuclear fission in nuclear power plants.  They are normally contained within the reactor core, except when the core becomes damaged as in Fukashima recently.

These radioactive isotopes can quickly enter the body and target the thyroid gland causing significant thyroid damage.  Potassium iodide taken just before exposure and during exposure to the radioactive isotopes blocks them from latching onto the thyroid gland.

The physical half-life of I-131 is 8 days. The biological half-life is 138 days.  The effective half-life is 7.6 days.

Spent nuclear fuel rods for nuclear power plants emit I-129.  These must be kept cool and contained or the I-129 radioisotopes can spread into the environment.  The physical half-life of I-129 is a whopping 15.7 million years!  No references were found on the biological half-life or effective half-life of I-129.

Potassium Iodide Is Not A Magic Elixir For Preventing Radiation Damage

As we’ve seen, I-131 is blocked from getting into the thyroid effectively with an appropriate dose of potassium iodide taken before and during an exposure.  Thankfully, potassium iodide is also protective for I-129.  That’s really important since it’s physical half-life is slightly longer than any of us can expect to live! Potassium iodide is effective for preventing radiation-induced thyroid cancer.  But just like anything, potassium iodide can cause significant discomfort and health problems if used indiscriminately.

Since C-137 is not blocked by potassium iodide, what can be done to protect ourselves?  Essentially we should do what research has confirmed for protecting against DNA damage as a result of radiation exposure from the thin upper atmosphere, or lack of atmosphere in space:  Taking high amounts of dietary and supplemental antioxidants.

In the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009 paper, researchers from the CDC, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the American Cancer Society, looked at the relationship of DNA damage in airline pilots and the potential protective effects of dietary and supplemental antioxidants.  The findings were that high combined antioxidants from foods and supplements decreased DNA damage from higher exposure to ionizing radiation in airline pilots.

What About the Benefits of Low-Level Radiation?

In a 1991 study sponsored by the Department of Energy, researchers from John Hopkins School of Public health examined 10 years of epidemiological data on 700,000 shipyard workers, some of whom had been exposed to 10 times more radiation than the others from their work on the ships’ nuclear reactors. The workers exposed to excess radiation had a 24 percent lower death rate and a 25 percent lower cancer mortality than the non-irradiated workers.

In a 2008 case-control study performed by researchers at Worchester Polytechnic Institute, Fallon Clinic and Fallon Community Health Plan, they found that people exposed to low level radon had an approximately 60 percent lower risk for developing lung cancer than people not exposed to radon.   Radon was thought to be the second leading cause of lung cancer, second only to cigarette smoking.

The take home message is that there is some ionizing radiation in our environment at all times and a small dose can have some beneficial effects.  This is the concept of “hormesis”.  Hormesis is the theory that a very low dose of a substance on an organism may trigger the opposite response to a very high dose of that substance.

Nutrition and Functional Medicine Recommendation: What You Can Do

If you live on the west coast or in any area that maybe affected by the fallout, the main rational things you can do are as follows:

  1. enhance your body’s detoxification mechanisms
  2. give your body plenty of antioxidant protection
  3. give your body a “hormetic” dose of a homeopathic radiation substance
  4. protect your thyroid with a moderate dose of potassium iodide

For numbers one to three, I recommend the following:

  1. Exercise 4 to 5 days a week regularly.  If there becomes a significant plume of vapor in your area from the meltdown, exercise indoors.
  2. Embarking on a nutritionally-supplemented detoxification program with antioxidant and detoxification-enhancing substances like high d-gamma tocopherol based vitamin E, the selenomethionine form of selenium, the R-isomer of lipoic acid, concentrated green tea extract, milk thistle extract, artichoke extract, glutamine, MSM, glutathione, garlic extract, Vitamin A, Vitamin C and other detoxification-enhancing nutrients.
  3. Take extra antioxidant vitamins and minerals.
  4. Eat a significant amount of organic dark green leafy and brightly colored vegetables, and fruit, preferably purchased from a supplier east of the Rocky Mountains.
  5. Try to purchase any dairy products from a supplier away from an affected area in the U.S, where the highest levels of Fukashima fallout may have affected cows, goats and other farm animals.
  6. Get to bed by no later than 10 PM and getting up after at least 7 to 8 hours of sound sleep.
  7. Use a homeopathic radiation formula containing Kali Iodatum 6x daily during the risk of exposure.

For number four, find which one of the following applies to you:

  1. If you are a healthy adult with no autoimmune diseases, who already has good iodine levels, you may not need to take the CDC emergency doses.  A starting dose of about 0.5 -1.0  mg potassium iodide during the days that the vapor plume from Japan is expected to reach your area may be sufficient.  You can titrate the dose higher in the days preceding the expected fallout from Fukashima, watching carefully to avoid a dose where potassium iodide overdose symptoms occur.   In my experience many fairly healthy adults begin to get potassium iodide overdose symptoms at over about 10 mg.
  2. If you are an adult with celiac disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or other thyroid disorders, Lupus, Sjorgren’s syndrome or other autoimmune disorder, before taking potassium iodide, check with a knowledgeable health professional.  If recommended to do so, take only during the days that the vapor plume from Japan is expected to reach your area.
  3. If you are the parent of children from infant to 12 years old, check with a knowledgeable health professional about use a very small dose of potassium iodide for your child, only during the days that the vapor plume from Japan is expected to reach your area.
  4. For acute, close-proximity exposure to radioactivity, follow the CDC recommendations:

The CDC recommends these age adjusted one-time potassium iodide emergency doses:

  • Over 12 years old – 130 mg
  • 3 – 12 years old – 65 mg
  • 1– 36 months old – 32 mg
  • < 1 month old – 16 mg

These are extremely high doses.  The rationale behind the high doses are that the benefits outweigh the risk of very uncomfortable side effects of high potassium iodide, for the protection against thyroid cancer.  The CDC recommendations are based on the average person, who is already iodine deficient.  Also, those recommendations are for those in close proximity to high levels of iodine radioactive isotopes.  We are in California, not in Fukashima.  Be aware that if you have healthy iodine levels and you take excessive high doses of potassium iodide, you likely will get some significant side effects, such as agitation, stomach upset, severe rashes and salivary gland inflammation.  Moreover, you may even damage your thyroid worse than any relatively small amount of radiation that we may get from being over 5000 miles away from Fukashima.

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About the author:
Dr Husbands has been helping people resolve chronic illness and improve their health for over two decades. He is a Doctor of  Chiropractic, a Clinical Nutritionist, a Functional Medicine Doctor and an Anti-Aging Health Practitioner.  Dr. Husbands has been sought for expert opinion by national health magazines and been published in peer-reviewed journals.  His holistic health clinic is in the Rivera Chiropractic Group clinic in San Carlos, CA.  He is available for phone consultations for those who live outside of the area. For questions or to contact Dr Husbands, visit www.holistichealthbayarea.com, or call (650) 394-7470.

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