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Do We Have To Worry About Radiation?

By Ivette Figueroa
Posted On Jun 15, 2011

The global concern about victims of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant implosion leaves a big question unanswered: Do Americans have to worry about radioactive fallout from Japan?

PHOTOGRAPHY Jim Arbogast

One of the more disturbing images from 20th Century literature comes from “On The Beach.” The book (and the movie) is set in Australia after a great nuclear war destroys the Northern Hemisphere. The citizens of Australia are waiting for the nuclear cloud to arrive and wipe them out. No explosions, no noise, just a deadly cloud heading their way.

Radiation is the ultimate silent assassin. You can’t see it, smell it or touch it, and it doesn’t take much exposure to dramatically increase your risk of cancer. The fear of this quiet killer has only escalated in the U.S. with the implosion of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Japanese government has distributed 230,000 potassium iodide tablets to evacuation centers in the areas around the nuclear power complex. These tablets help protect the thyroid gland from the radioactive form of iodine released by nuclear accidents, which can cause thyroid cancer.

As Japan scrambled to contain its nuclear disaster, 5,000 miles across the Pacific, Americans living on the West Coast were busily doing what they do best—panicking. Although the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) website claimed, “there is no public health threat in the U.S. related to radiation exposure,” within days of the accident the three U.S. government-approved suppliers of potassium iodide were sold out. So how else can anxious Americans protect themselves against possible fallout heading their way?

“Awareness is the first key,” says Theresa Pantanella, OTD, MPA, a member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine and therapist at the Aquamed Centers in Florida. “If people can become aware of where the radiation comes from, they can protect themselves.”

WHAT TO WORRY ABOUT

It is just one of a panoply of cancers that can be caused by exposure to radiation. Others include lung cancer, bone cancer, breast cancer and testicular cancer. The higher the levels of exposure, the greater the danger of later getting cancer. You can expect other ailments, too. “Fibrotic lung disease, leukemia, inflammation of the heart, impaired performance of the hematopoietic system… the list goes on,” says Dr. Pantanella.

But aren’t we all exposed to radiation every day, in one form or another? Yes and no. What’s important to understand is that there are two different types of radiation: external radiation, which comes from the sun and from electronic devices such as microwaves, computers and cell phones, and internal radiation, which is radiation that is ingested, breathed in or absorbed through the skin.

“There is a huge difference between internal and external radiation,” says Ronald Klatz, MD, the physician founder and president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. “External radiation, like X-rays, is radiation in the form of a wave that comes and goes. The damage it does on its way through [the body] is the damage it does. Internal radiation [in the form of particles] actually binds to the cells of the body.”

The particles from internal radiation, says Dr. Klatz, act like little machine guns that don’t stop firing. “Those little radiation emitters are constantly doing damage to the cells of your body, and they eventually kill the cell or damage the DNA. If your body doesn’t repair the DNA at just the right spot, it will turn that cell into a cancer.” So, while direct radiation from an X-ray is toxic, sustained low-level doses of radiation are far more toxic.

OUR TOXIC ENVIRONMENT?

When it comes to protecting yourself from internal radiation, experts say that an awareness of your environment is key. Radiation can come from a number of sources, and there are a variety of ways to protect yourself from each one.

The Rain. During the process of creating nuclear energy, radiation becomes airborne as fission products (like cesium 137 and strontium) are released, says Dr. Pantanella. “These particles collect on water molecules (and even faster on snow flakes). Then they fall with that drop of rain or snow flake to the earth.”

It’s vital then, she says, to stay out of the rain when possible and to thoroughly wash your clothes and shoes if you do get caught in a shower.

Drinking Water. The RadNet radiation monitoring system, implemented by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), provides a national network for tracking radiation levels across the country. The system utilizes over 50 drinking water monitoring sites; the idea is that radioactive material from Japan will be so widely dispersed that monitoring from these multiple locations will show the impact on the nation as a whole. Therefore, not every city is sampled.

Results posted on the EPA website from these samples report elevated radiation in drinking water at .28 to .48 picocuries per liter across the country. Although the limit for radioactive iodine in drinking water is 3 picocuries per liter and contamination has not yet reached EPA limits, the radiation threat is far from over. It may be wise to filter drinking water to avoid risks from steadily increasing levels of radiation or long-term exposure.

The immediate solution? “Buy a carbon filter with an ionizer. It will help remove radiation from the drinking water,” says Dr. Pantanella. The ionized water is also purported to have antioxidant properties.

Food Supply. Being at the top of the food chain is actually a dangerous position. When you eat a piece of meat, you are taking in the products that that animal took in as well. The same goes for plant products: There is a concentration of toxins, including from radiation, which we take in at higher quantities and in shorter amounts of time than other species. “Since we are at the top of the food chain, we take in everything that we have eaten has accumulated,” explains Dr. Regina Axelrod, a professor and chair of the political science department at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., and an expert on nuclear power and energy policy.

Currently, the FDA has strengthened the global food safety net regarding imports from Japan. Products that the Japanese government has restricted for sale or export (such as milk, spinach, lettuce, celery, turnips, and other leafy vegetables from the Fukushima Prefecture) cannot gain U.S. entry, even by providing sample results.

Washing your food, especially fruits and vegetables, is highly recommended. Meanwhile, the FDA reports no radiation safety risk related to milk produced in the U.S., and as federal and state agencies test milk samples, the low levels of iodine 131 (I-131) found in different samples are not expected to cause adverse health effects.

The Ocean. According to a recent Washington Post report, the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the Fukushima power plant, is already dumping low-level radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean as an emergency step to secure room for the storage of more highly-contaminated water. The initiative aims to dispose of 11,500 tons of low-level radioactive water into the sea. That’s 100 times the legal limit permitted for release in the environment. According to a New York Times report, more highly radioactive water is leaking into seawater from a large crack in the intake pipes near the No. 2 reactor.

The concern, then, is how this radioactive material will affect marine life. According to the FDA website, “It is unlikely that a fish exposed to significant levels of radionuclides near the reactor could travel to U.S. waters and be caught and harvested. If this improbable trip did occur, the level of short-lived radionuclides such as I-131 would drop significantly through natural radioactive decay during the time needed to make the journey.”

The FDA claims that, in the unlikely scenario that polluted fish reach the U.S., it will work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to test seafood caught in those areas. However, the FDA has reported no reason for concern and therefore has conducted no testing to date. But while radioactive elements like I-131 have a short half-life, cesium 137, which has a half-life of 30 years, is far more likely to collect in fish.

“The government is really helpless to mitigate the risk,” says Dr. Axelrod. “I know doctors who have said to their patients not to eat fish that are from the Pacific because there is a likelihood that they have been impacted by the radiation.”

“We’ve got a real problem with fish, because they are dumping huge amounts of radioactive waste into the ocean,” says Dr. Klatz. “They are finding fish with traces of plutonium in them.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Radiation works two-fold to damage the body. First, it destroys the immune system, which makes you susceptible to cancer and similar illnesses. Second, it creates free radicals in the body that damage DNA.

In the end, detoxification may be the order of the day. Getting rid of toxins makes it easier for your body to repair itself from radiation damage.

According to Dr. Pantanella, the body has two natural detoxification systems: the xenobiotic system (the set of metabolic pathways that often act to detoxify poisonous compounds), which is particularly critical in removing radioactive particles, especially uranium; and the reactive oxygen species (the chemically reactive molecules containing oxygen in the body), which handles the removal of free radicals.

Detoxification, in general, is a matter of diet. There are a variety of detox diets, but most revolve around consuming lots of raw, organic foods, especially those rich in fiber, and drinking a lot of fluids that can flush out your system, from plain water to green tea.

The best method of removing free radicals is to increase your intake of antioxidants.

“Glucan and polysaccharide-protein supplements boost your immune system. And blueberries, green tea or supplements with alpha-lipoic acid work best to boost your antioxidants,” says Dr. Pantanella.

Other supplements that may be protective for all your cells are vitamin D and vitamin K. Both support appropriate apoptosis, which is programmed death of cells that accumulate various DNA errors (including radiation damage); vitamin D also supports DNA repair. Taking supplements and visiting a specialist to check your toxin levels is important to ensure that contaminants such as mercury, lead and other heavy metals are not blocking your body’s basic repair mechanisms.

“This is going to require a major lifestyle change for every one of us to prevent… cancer,” says Dr. Klatz. “We’ve polluted our environment drastically. Detox is the only thing that’s going to save us.”