We live in a nuclear age, and risks from radiation are all around us. Disasters, both natural and man-made, can cause reactor malfunction and even a melt-down. The recent earthquake in Japan with its unfolding nuclear reactor problems demonstrates the severity of this risk. Not only is much at stake for the Japanese people in this situation, but anyone downwind of the fallout is also in danger of possible radiation exposure, including areas of the US. Reactors are not the only source of risk either. Dirty bombs, real nuclear bomb detonation, and even airport scanners are sources of dangerous radiation exposure.
Radiation is a both mysterious and invisible. Things we can’t see often frighten us because we don’t understand what is going on. In this article I will attempt to take out some of the mystery. I will also provide guidance on how to deal with the potential health dangers. While radiation is potentially deadly, it is better to keep all things in proportion, lest we be terrified of our own shadows. After reading this article, you will be better equipped to assess the risks to your family and have some ideas on how to treat or prevent them.
What is Radiation?
Radiation is high energy particles and waves. As such it is part of the electromagnetic spectrum along with radio waves and light. The energy in a given wave (all other things being equal) is in proportion to its frequency. Radio waves are at the low end of the spectrum, infrared and then visible light in the middle, and x-ray and gamma rays at the high end. X-rays & gamma rays, being very high in frequency, pack the most energy. Therefore, when radio waves penetrate our bodies as they do every day, no harm occurs because they lack the energy to affect our cell or biochemistry in any way. The exception is a small subtle effect of microwaves from cell phones when held close to our brain, but for the most part radio waves in everyday strength do us no harm.
As we go up the spectrum, infrared waves cause heating, but lack the penetrating force to go into our bodies. Then comes light, which as we all know is harmless in everyday intensities. As we go yet higher, we start getting into waves packing enough energy to cause disruptions at the cellular level. Ultraviolet waves can cause skin cancer, but like regular light cannot penetrate our skin. X-rays as we all know have so much energy they can go right through us. They also cause damage to our cells and DNA as they do so. Gamma rays are even more dangerous, but we don’t have much experience with them since they are blocked (thankfully) by our atmosphere.
In most natural situations, we are never exposed to anything higher than ultraviolet in any great quantities. The exception is when we dabble with radioactive elements. These elements are very heavy metals which tend to be unstable in the atomic structure. Since they are unstable, they will spontaneously decay into more stable forms, releasing x-rays, gamma rays and radioactive particles in the process. Just like poison, the danger of radiation is in the dosage. In small quantities, it is harmless. It is in higher concentrations where the danger lies. Unlike poison, radiation effects are cumulative. Therefore small doses over time can add up. I think there is a limit to this accumulation, since survivors of high levels of radiation are not in any grave danger of radiation poisoning from getting a x-ray for example. The cumulation is most likely related to cancer risks.
Before proceeding with the risks of radiation exposure, rest assured that except in the very highest levels of exposure, it is not an automatic death sentence. Many people have been exposed to high levels of radiation and have survived and even thrived. While I am not advocating reckless exposure, the outcome of exposure is not necessarily bad. For many, little harm is done. Like most things, it is a risk. There are winners and there are losers. There are also things we can do to minimize those risks.
There are two risks from radiation – sickness, possibly resulting in death, and cancer. When exposed to large amounts of radiation such as one would get from being near a nuclear explosion, a damaged reactor or fallout from either of these, a person can literally become sick. Nausea and vomiting are among the symptoms. The higher the dosage, the greater the risk of death. What happens is the radiation actually damages our cells, so we get sick. It is kind of like being wounded at the cellular level. For the lower dosages, most people will recover and go on to lead normal lives. As the dosage increases, the more likely it is that a person will die instead of recover. Proper medical treatment such as hydration therapy along with prayer is about the only thing that can be done for such victims.
For those who heal and survive, usually no lasting harm is done. Like I said before, it is not an automatic death sentence. There is a secondary risk however, not only to radiation survivors, but even for those who are exposed to levels not sufficient to actually make a person sick. That risk is cancer. Anyone exposed to over 100 millisieverts a year risks cancer. Sieverts are the units of the biological effects of ionizing radiation. One hundred millisieverts is not enough to produce any effects of radiation sickness. It would be easy to be exposed to that much and never even know it.
Risk assessment from radiation would not be complete without knowing from where the radiation can come. The first thing to understand is that radiation is a form of light if you will. It travels only in a straight line. It cannot go around corners, and it can’t even reflect off of surfaces. As long you are not in the line of sight from a radiative source, you will not experience any radiation.
The second thing to understand is that radiation is penetrating. The only thing that will stop it is several feet of earth or concrete. Steel will not stop it unless it is several inches thick. Your house will not stop it, nor will a metal roof. If you are in the path of radiation, the only safety lies below ground where there is no line of sight path for the radiation except through several feet of earth or concrete.
In the case of the Japanese reactor meltdown, authorities are advising people to stay in their homes and seal them up. I believe this advice is bad. While it will reduce the inhalation of radioactive airborne particles, it will not stop the radiation from those particles. If I were in their situation, I would either leave, or get below ground. Bear in mind, a basement is not usually adequate, although it would reduce the amount by around 80%. The reason is that radiation will still come in through the exposed ceiling of the basement.
The third thing to understand, is that radiation must come from a radioactive element or reaction somewhere. If you are not in the line of sight of a nuclear explosion, you can only get radiation from a radioactive particle. In the event of a reactor meltdown or a nuclear explosion, radioactive dust is released into the atmosphere. This dust can travel upward to the jet stream, travel around the world, and settle to the earth in the rain. It is these particles and their radiation that is dangerous. If the dust settles on you roof, their radiation will go straight through to your basement. If you breath or ingest the dust, the radiation comes from within you.
People and things exposed to radiation do not in general become radioactive. Of course, if they are covered with fallout, any particles adhering to their clothing or bodies is radioactive, but bathing and a change of clothes that removes these contaminants returns the person and others to safety. People with radiation sickness are not radioactive nor dangerous to attend to.
Minimizing Radiation Dangers
The best way to minimize the danger from radiation is to avoid areas contaminated from radioactive particles. In the case of fallout, which is when radiactive dust precipitates out of the air via rain, fallout shelters are advisable in heavy cases for a period of at least two weeks. Most radioactive particles in fallout from nuclear explosions are short lived, and even levels that are lethal in the first few days diminish significantly over a period of several days. Keep the time period of decay in mind when assessing your risk.
In addition to avoiding radiation from fallout, care should be taken to avoid drinking or eating substances contaminated from fallout. Water that was bottled before the fallout, as well as food is quite safe, provided any fallout dust is removed from the container so as to not contaminate the contents. While the time frame for these precautions vary from days to weeks, a month from the time of the incident is enough to render most of the particles fairly safe.
In addition to avoiding fallout radiation as well as ingesting fallout dust, one should take proactive measures to minimize the possibilities of cancer, particularly thyroid cancer. The risk of cancer from excessive radiation is not very high, but it is not trivial either. I have read that the increased risk from exposure is around 20%. That is to say if 10 people in a group develop cancer in their lifetime, then if that entire group also suffered from excessive radiation, then 12 people would get cancer.
General prevention of cancer from radiation exposure is the same as any other cancer causing sources – proper nutrition, but that is beyond the scope of this article. In brief, avoid sugars and starches, as well as vegetable oils. Consume large quantities of fish oil, and take vitamins A, C, D & E. For thyroid cancer, which is the most likely form, there is a preventative in addition to these dietary recommendations.
Thyroid cancer is caused by ingestion of Iodine-131, a radioactive isotope created by nuclear reactions. It has a half-life of only 8 days, so after 32 days, the amount that is radioactive has been reduced by 94%. Therefore, your greatest concern is within the first month of the incident. The reason it causes cancer is because the thyroid gland requires a steady supply of iodine to make its hormones, the radioactive iodine will concentrate in this gland. Being a particularly potent carcinogen, it is very dangerous. According to Wikipedia, the risk to adults is not considered very high, but children are most at risk.
Taking potassium iodide pills is the usual preventative in the case of an incident. The idea is to saturate your thyroid with normal iodine so it won’t be able to absorb the radioactive isotope. Taking large doses of iodine however is itself risky. Certain thyroid conditions can make such an act fatal to the thyroid gland itself. Therefore, I don’t recommend taking such a step except in certain cases of high exposure.
For potential low-level possibilities, I take a few drops of Lugol’s solution every few days. This is a old time source of iodine that used to be highly regarded in mainstream medicine. It is particularly helpful to anyone suffering from thyroid deficiencies. This condition is common today from our poor diet, and women are especially prone. Therefore, I recommend this supplement for most people in general. By keeping your thyroid satisfied with modest levels of iodine, you will maintain good thyroid health and also mitigate risks from radioactive iodine.
In summary, remember these points:
- Radiation, even fairly high levels is not a sure death sentence, nor is it a sure cancer sentence.
- Radiation must come from either a nuclear reaction or from the resulting particles. It does not come from people or other irradiated objects.
- Radiation travels only in straight lines, and can penetrate even concrete walls.
- For most people, the risk is from radioactive fallout. Avoiding fallout particles for 30 days is the best approach for safety.
- Cancer risks are not that high, and can be largely mitigated by consuming the right kind of concentrated nutrients and avoiding harmful sugars and vegetable seed oils.
Stay safe, and don’t believe them when they tell you to tape yourself in your house. You know better now.
If you have any helpful comments or questions, please post them below. I will try to answer all questions, and help further clear the air on this obscure topic.
If you wait until a nuclear event occurs to obtain either potassium iodide or Lugol’s solution, you probably won’t be able to buy any. If you find yourself in that situation, there are two alternatives. One is to buy some kelp and consume quite a bit of it. It is a high iodine food. The other is a remedy I haven’t tried myself, but it makes sense. If you choose to try it, you do so at your own risk. Here is what you do: take drugstore iodine tincture (for external use only) and apply some to your skin. When the stain fades, apply some more. When it persists for 24 hours, you have enough iodine in your system. Do not even think of taking drugstore iodine internally – it is poisonous. Apply it to your skin only.