By far, the greatest amount of interest in my post, Kelp: A Prophylactic Protocol for Radiation Emergencies, has been from the international community. It is apparent that there is a great deal of concern for the health risks involved for people in North America in the path of potential fallout. I hope to shed a little light on the real risks involved.
The first things that people think of are Chernobyl and/or Three Mile Island. Chernobyl was an unmitigated disaster in which an operating reactor exploded and then subsequently burned uncontrolled for some 10 days. Three Mile Island is most notable for being in close proximity to populated areas in the U.S. As such, both nuclear events have a heavy emotional footprint in large numbers of people.
Memories aside, what’s important in assessing the risk of any situation are facts, not fear. There are health risks involved with radiation exposure. That said, people need to realize that our sun itself is a massive fusion reactor and that we constantly see exposure. Our sun itself is the primary source of so-called “background radiation” and is the basis of the definition of a millisievert.
The current situation in Fukushima poses no risk whatsoever to people in North America. People have panicked themselves there and, on the west coast, have bought up practically every bit of prophylactic potassium iodide available. While I am an advocate of preparedness for any eventuality, there comes a point where certain preparations are simply not contextually appropriate for the risks involved.
My article about kelp was intended primarily for people in Japan and, moreover, for people who are within an approximate 300 km radius of “ground zero”. It was intended to empower people to be in control of their health (the entire point of this blog and the services I offer via Living Intentionally). To that end, it’s been successful; a lot of visits from Japanese IP addresses.
Since the situation here simply will not become a Chernobyl-like catastrophe, let’s look at a reasonable worst-case scenario (complete meltdown of one reactor and subsequent explosion):
- A 50-km/30-mi. exclusion zone would likely be completely adequate to protect people’s health. The reactors are not in operation and, therefore, any reactions will not be of a runaway variety. Explosion and, therefore, dispersal of radioactive material would be limited.
- The longer operators are able to continue pouring seawater and boric acid into the containment chambers and spent fuel pools, the cooler the fuel becomes. If they are able to keep a serious accident from occurring for another 10 days, the risk of subsequent explosion will be greatly diminished.
- Prevailing winds in the area blow out of the west in an easterly direction. Most radioactive particles would fall harmlessly into the ocean.
- Exposure to radiation is subject to Newton’s inverse-square law: As you double the distance from the source of radiation, your exposure is quartered. As it is now, radiation in Tokyo at its highest was less than half of a single chest x-ray, and that is for those who spent the day outside exposed to it. Those who normally work inside for a living got practically nothing whatsoever.
The best equivalent I can think of for dispersal of material toward North America is Asian Dust, a phenomenon whereby sand from Mongolian deserts is whipped up by winds and distributed over wide areas. Most of that dust has a relatively small distribution area on a global scale. More importantly, the “point source” is huge and the amount of material is also huge. Still, the environmental impact on North America from this phenomenon is only significant on occasion.
The point source of a radiation leak is measured in metres whereas the Mongolian desert is bigger than some European countries. Due to dispersal characteristics, global wind patterns and the inverse-square law, the real risks of radiation from Japan in North America are less than the radiation dangers from tobacco smoke.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll be honest and say that I’ve been eating my kelp regularly. I’m also sending my kids to Okinawa to hang out with their grandparents until the situation resolves. Why? The biggest reason is that their schools have been (prematurely) closed and they’re bored out of their minds. Getting them out of the house and letting them enjoy a different setting for a time will let us parents relax a bit more. I’m not, however, wildly concerned about their health. Yes, I’d be happier if they’d eat their kelp, but I need to once again make it clear that I don’t think it’ll be necessary. I’m eating kelp, but I’m not doing anything to import potassium iodide tablets. I have the immune system of Superman. Even in a worst-case scenario, I’m not likely to be exposed to enough radiation in Tokyo to have a significant impact on my health.
People have been marvelling at how optimistic and calm I seem in the face of great adversity. Honestly, there’s no adversity we’re facing here in Tokyo. The biggest issue is fear. People are hoarding food and supplies. Just try to find toilet paper here. It’s crazy. Just try living in a household with three females and a shortage of toilet paper. Now there’s some stress for you. 😉