Monday, March 28, 2011

Radiation Stuff - It is Maddening I Tell You!

Just when you start to get a handle on one unit of radiation measurement the nuclear guys throw a curve ball. Becquerels is a small unit of radiation measurement that is really confusing. A Becquerel is one count of one pop per second. I doesn't describe the type of pop, how much energy the pop has or anything related to health, other than there is some radiation present. On top of that, the pops are given in different units, kilometers, meters, centimeters, kilograms and grams.

When the Becquerels are used for describing food or water contamination they are most useful. If you consume the food or water then the majority of the radiation has a chance to do something. As a background level, Becquerels are almost useless. Sieverts are used to describe the health impacts of absorbed radiation.

The milk and vegetables around the reactors has been measured in Becquerel per kilograms (Bq/Kg). Spinach, for example, was tested at levels of 15,000 Becquerels for the Isotope Iodine 131. The normal Japanese standard for Iodine 131 is 2000 Becquerel per kilogram. So anything over 2000 Bq/Kg is bad right? Maybe? At 15,000 Bq/Kg one report said you would have to eat 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of spinach to have a possible increase in cancer. Different folks have different risk factors. The younger you are the more likely the risk. That is why water at 100 Becquerels per kilogram is the Japanese limit for infants and 300 Bq/Kg for adults.

There is a big difference between 2000 Bq/Kg for spinach and 100 Bq/Kg for water. Does that mean that infants don't eat spinach? Probably not, but by the time they do eat spinach their body mass is high enough they can statistically tolerate a few grams of slightly radiated spinach.

The Japanese radiation standards are very conservative. That is why there is some confusion about the moving radiation targets. There is no international standard I know of that properly addresses the issue of radiation either background or in food stuffs. That is because there are huge variations in background radiation and for content of certain foods.

Bananas for example contain 520 Pico Curries of radioactive potassium 40 which converts to approximately 130 Bq/Kg. Brazil nuts have about 207 Bq/Kg potassium 40 and up to 259 Bq/Kg of radium 226 for a total of 466 Bq/Kg. Brazil nuts are the only food that contains any where near that amount of total radiation. White potatoes have an average 125 Bq/Kg. These are all naturally occurring radiation levels that have not been impacted by any atomic tests or accidents. That is just the way it is in nature.

So why is there no international food radiation standards? Because it is not that simple. People living in areas with different normal background radiation level typically have different tolerances and genetic predispositions to forms and levels of radiation. A Scandinavian person for example is much more susceptible to sunburn than a member of a second or more generation Scandinavian family living in the tropics and much, much, more than a tropical native. It is the same thing with other forms of radiations, the human body adapts.

To figure out your own radiation tolerances you would have to look at your average diet, life style, local radiation background level and work exposure to radiation. Outdoors types build more tolerance than indoor types, vegetarians differ from omnivores and genetics play a very large role. So national standards reflect national averages which have meaning while international standards would not.

The worst thing about all this confusion and most often irrational fear, is that the use of radiation for treating foods is not looked at rationally. Irradiation of foods kill the nasty bacteria and other organisms that cause the majority of food related deaths. Buzz words like "organic" are helpful for reducing some levels of pesticide, genetic modification and hormones, but do nothing to address salmonella, E. Coli or other more damaging contaminates. For food sensitive people, organic food is a quality of life saver. Irradiated food is a real life saver. Any mention of radiation, though is a frightening red flag. The impact that fear may have on nuclear energy is meaningless. The potential of irradiated food to reduce food related fatalities, extend useful life of stored foods and improve international health standards being ignored is were the real tragedy lies, and it will only suffer more because of this event.

The largest adverse health of the Fukushima nuclear crisis will be emotional stress. Education is the only thing that can reduce that stress. Enough education may actually allow more people to lead healthy lives.

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