As radiation from Japanese reactor hits west coast, US government says “Don’t take iodine or kelp”. That’s wrong.

  • Published on March 18th, 2011

radiation plume from the japanese reactors

For more than 6o years, government officials have downplayed the dangers of radiation.

The truth is: radiation can kill you – slowly, through cancer. And you can avoid that with some simple measures, right now, such as increasing your intake of Iodine and Iodide.

Calming public relations vs action

From the atomic testing of the 1950s to Three Mile Island and now the Japanese Fukushima reactor meltdown, officials have issued happy, soothing words, rather than useful or true ones.

“…I want to be very clear,” President Obama told a worried nation. “We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it’s the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or U.S. territories.”

Here’s a different way a government can react to radiation:

Within hours after the onset of the Chernobyl disaster, Polish authorities acted to get iodine solutions, potassium and sodium iodide tablets, even seaweed tablets and capsules into as many of their citizens as possible to protect them from the nearby huge amounts of iodine 131 coming their way. Over the intervening 20 years, the Polish people treated with iodine 127 have almost 1000 time less thyroid disease than neighboring countries even further than Poland from the Chernobyl disaster site.

But as Americans from Berkeley to Boston snap up potassium iodide pills and kelp, health officials tell us not to take them.

Dr. Mel Kohn, Oregon’s Director of Public Health, says there have been no detected increased radiation levels detected at this time and he does not expect there to be an increase in the near future. “Given the current size of the release and the distance from Oregon, we do not expect that to change”, said Kohn. “There is no public health risk to the state.”

The AP quotes a variety of officials, all of them totally sanguine, all of them uttering the same bland denials they issue every single time there’s a radiation problem. That unanimity alone should be enough to make you suspicious… aren’t journalists always supposed to report both sides of the story?

“Radiation is one of those words that get everybody scared, like ‘plague,'” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of public health for Los Angeles County. “But we’re 5,000 miles away.”

…Even if particles waft to the U.S. coast, the amount will be so diluted that it will not pose any health risk. Wind, rain and salt spray will help clean the air over the vast ocean between Japan and the United States.

…”It is certainly not a threat in terms of human health” added William H. Miller, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri.

…National Nuclear Security Administration spokesman Damien LaVera said. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said they see no radiation at harmful levels reaching the United States, and we’re not seeing anything that is inconsistent with that.”

“Worst-case scenario, there is no threat to public health in California,” said the agency’s acting secretary, Mike Dayton.

“Harmful levels”

Overall radiation levels can get diluted, yes. External radiation can get diluted across the whole country, and when officials say “radiation is harmless”, that’s what they’re talking about.

But “particles” can’t get diluted. They’re particles. Particles of Iodine 131 and plutonium WILL be spewed out into the atmosphere.

By the time they reach California or Iowa there may only be a dozen particles per square mile, rather than hundreds. But if you breathe a particle of plutonium in it stays in your lung, cranking out radiation, until you die – probably of cancer.

The difference between external radiation and ingesting particles of fallout is like the difference between nicking yourself shaving – and swallowing the razor blade.

The same goes for radioactive iodine. It gets absorbed and concentrated in your thyroid, where it can cause cancer. If there is any chance at all of you getting cancer, and a very simple, even healthy way for you to block that, why on earth would public health officials tell you NOT to do that?

Harmful levels for a public health official are very different from harmful levels for individuals. They tend to talk in terms of long-term effects like a few dozen or a few hundred “excess” cancers, while we tend to be rightly worried about things that will kill us on a strictly personal basis.

Are you an average person? I don’t know about you, but my statistically insignificant death from cancer would still be a matter of grave personal concern, even if it wouldn’t rise to the level of a public health emergency.

Here’s what you need to know….

Iodine and Iodide can protect you

Naturally-occurring Iodine and its Iodide form are important nutrients, but one product of nuclear processes is a radioactive variant, Iodine 131.

The body concentrates that Iodine 131 in the thyroid gland, where it spews out concentrated radiation during the 8 weeks it takes to decay. Down the road, this leads to thyroid cancer.

There’s a simple way to prevent that: increase your body’s intake of natural Iodine and Iodide, and you won’t absorb the Iodine 131 when it shows up. Many Americans are probably low on Iodine already (because of the bromine in hot tubs, among other reasons), so supplementing Iodine isn’t a bad idea.

You can take a pill [note: many Americans have thyroid problems; if you do, check with your doctor before doing anything], or you can get a better, healthier source through edible seaweed, like the green nori that wraps sushi rolls or the other varieties popular in Japanese soups. Seaweed contains lots of other healthy minerals, too.

[Note: Really, this should go without saying, but please don’t do anything stupid. Don’t take lots of pills. That won’t help. If you have thyroid issues, check with your doctor first.]

-> Next page: Why isn’t the government telling you this?

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.
  • Barry

    Besides taking or not taking meds, what about respirators/masks ect, what size particulates are they and is there an easy way to wear protection to increase my family’s odds somewhat, I keep dust masks around my house for projects, is there any type in particular that could help, or using indoor filtration ect that could improve keeping the air ect clean of this if need be? There has to be some steps I can take to help protect my family if things do get worse or bad right?

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  • The half life of iodine-131 is 8.07 DAYS, not 8 weeks. So congratulations on advising people to consider taking iodine supplements when miniscule amounts of radiation are being detected and are rapidly decaying. Perhaps you should take a college level freshman chemistry class and learn a little bit about nuclear decay, half-lifes and radiation before advising people to ingest items that can kill them.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      And congratulations, you get the reward for “Most insulting comment that betrays total inability to read”!
      Did I SAY the half-life of radioactive iodine was 8 weeks?
      No, I did not.
      Is radioactive iodine “safe” after 8 days? No, because only half of it has broken down.
      8 weeks is about how long it takes before you can reasonably be assured there is no danger, because so much of the radioactive iodine has, indeed, decayed.
      That’s what I wrote.
      I also didn’t advise people to take iodine supplements. I advised them to up their iodine intake by eating healthy foods that are rich in iodine – something they should DO ANYWAY.
      I hope you’re enjoying your knee-jerk panic over-reaction.

  • Great analogy of the shaving cut and the swallowed razor blade. I have been thinking the same thing about ingested particles.

    Why was there no discussion about Cesium-137? Given, it’s not remediated by seaweed or iodide supplements, but Ce137 pollution in our air, soil, and water is a great concern to me, and nobody seems to be talking about it.

    Also, any suggested sources on this topic would be great!

    Thanks, Jess

    • actually here is a better analogy to how “harmful” radiation is for you

      • Jeremy Bloom

        Again, this is yet another “ooh shiny” but non-relevant argument.
        Who cares how much non-toxic radioactive potassium you ingest from eating one banana?
        The problem isn’t the rate of radiation measured by a geiger-counter stuck out in the air someplace.
        The problem comes from ingesting one tiny particle of plutonium or one of the other radioactive components of fallout.
        It’s not that you would have to eat 10,000 bananas to kill you.
        It’s that one banana in 10,000 has enough radiation concentrated in it that it would kill you – in this case, the particle of plutonium.
        Given those odds, I’d stop eating bananas. Or in the real-world case, I’d do everything I can to avoid breathing in or ingesting particles, and to avoid concentrating them in my thyroid if I do.
        Why is that so difficult?

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  • great info, & way to put things into perspective!

    • Question: I’m a radiologic technologist. Admittedly, I work with EM ionizing radiation (xrays) instead of isotopes, but bear with me.

      In my line of work, we need to take the utmost in care every time we use an iodine-based contrast agent. We use iodine because it has a high enough atomic number to be easily visible in fluoroscopy but it’s also water soluble in case it leaks into the body or outside vessels; something you do not want with barium!

      We need to take great care every time we use iodine-based contrast agents (monomers OR dimers), make patients fill out a lengthy questionnaire and have a code cart on hand every time just in case people have a fatal allergic reaction to the iodine. I kid you not. Sometimes a reaction is just stuffiness pre-treated with benedryl. Sometimes it is serious enough to warrant a shot of epinephrine and a call to rapid response.

      My question now: If we, as hospital workers, must take such great care in choosing who receives iodine when in a healthcare setting with a doctor present, then imagine the risk of encouraging the general public to cram their thyroid full of iodine as a prophylactic. Is that necessarily wise?

      Further: while, yes, the thyroid is a wonderful thing and produces lots of great hormones that make our lives livable, they are not the only parts of our bodies susceptible to radiation on a grand scale. To eat nori or kelp or iodide and assume you are safe is a fallacy. Our greatest concern would be from plutonium, as Jenrose said above, and because it emits Alpha radiation, the general mechanism of harm is usually in inhalation and ingestion. A piece of paper can block alpha radiation, it doesn’t travel far and as far as radiation goes has very little energy, but once it gets into the lungs, you are far more likely to get it into your blood stream, which can and often will lead to organ damage. IF the plutonium particles are present in a great enough quantity to pose a risk. The much greater risk here is people panicking and taking KI prematurely. Our hospital has already had multiple meetings in the emergency department on how to treat suspected KI OD and poisoning. It’s already started…

      The below sites may provide you with worthwhile information.

  • Your data is wrong, fwiw.

    Nori has low levels of iodine compared to, say, Kelp or Dulse… so recommending that people eat sushi is just not going to help.

    Plutonium is irrelevant to the discussion of whether or not people should take potassium iodide. Utterly irrelevant, as iodine won’t do a damn thing to help you vs. plutonium.

    And the problems associated with potassium iodide overdose are far more concerning than one-in-a-million allergic reactions. The suppressive effect on the thryoid can be of great concern, especially to the one in FIVE Americans whose thyroids may already have somewhat impaired functioning. Not only that, but there is some concern that if people take potassium iodide NOW, in two weeks, if they really need it, they may not be able to take another dose safely.

    As someone who already suffers from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, I’m less worried about the “very slight odds” of thyroid cancer than I am about causing my already-impaired thyroid much greater harm. Please check your facts before trying to terrify people into harming themselves.

    • Jeremy Bloom

      !) Nori has lower levels of iodine, but it still helps. And nori and sushi are more readily available to most Americans at the moment. And nobody is going to overdose on sushi.
      2) Plutonium is relevant because I was talking about the difference between external radiation and internal. Government officials are not addressing the issue of internal dosage at all. I then transitioned to the issue of iodine, which is also an internal issue.
      3) It is unlikely that someone who takes the recommended dosage of iodide tablets will have issues. Nobody that eats a reasonable amount of seaweed is going to have issues, unless they already have issues, in which case they – like you – know what they are supposed to avoid. And throughout the article I include caveats.
      I’m not going to refrain from encouraging positive behavior on the off chance it may have a negative effect for some people. I say this in the article – perhaps you missed it? Officials are so worried about the few people who will have negative effects that they are withholding information that may protect thousands or millions more people.
      I will update the article with one more warning. But I stand by the overall tenor of what I wrote.