By Mark Halper
Posting in Cancer
Levels deemed safe. Do these places emit less radiation than a banana? Or than the granite of Yosemite?
It's getting well into July, so let's go to the beach - and then climb the mountains - for a bit of summer school.
Today's lesson is about radioactivity.
It was a bit surprising to see this headline in the Guardian a few days ago: Fukushima beach reopens to the public. "Locals enjoy splashing in the sea for the first time since the tsunami and nuclear disaster," the story declared. And boy do those kids at Nakaso beach look happy in the article's photo, which I can't reproduce here, for rights reasons.
But wait, isn't the beach laced with radioactivity following the meltdowns over a year ago at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear station 40 miles to the north? After all, the 16 other Fukushima prefecture public beaches remain closed. The Guardian writes:
According to the local authorities, the concentration of radioactivity in the water is negligible, at below 1 becquerel per litre, and poses no risk to the health of sunbathers and swimmers. Radiation readings are displayed on the beach twice a day.
Meanwhile, the UK had a similar development, although you wouldn't know it from a different flavor in a separate Guardian story this week, headlined, Record number of radioactive particles found on beaches near Sellafield complex. Sellafield is a nuclear facility in northwest England where as the story notes,
As many as 383 radioactive particles and stones were detected and removed from seven beaches in 2010-11, bringing the total retrieved since 2006 to 1,233.
So they closed the beaches, right? Wrong!
Although Sellafield insists that the health risks for beach users are "very low", there are concerns that some potentially dangerous particles may remain undetected and that contamination keeps being found.
This tale of two beaches rekindles the debate about radioactivity. The word itself sends people running to the hills. Too much radioactivity is indeed, without a doubt, deadly and deserves all the popular negative connotations of the word.
But radioactivity is all around us in constant harmless doses. Radioactivity buffs regard it as a wondrous process of natural decay. They'll never rebrand radioactivity to the public that way. Nor should they - let me be clear that caution is always in order.
But there is obviously a difference between caution and hysteria.
To illustrate radioactivity's ubiquity, granite is radioactive. Keep that in mind next time you're marveling at the majestic rocks and cliffs at Yosemite - one of my favorite spots on earth - or preparing food on a granite counter top.
The Guardian quotes a Sellafield spokesman saying that beaches in England's southwest - which sits atop granite - are more radioactive than those near the nuclear complex.
"It should be noted that people visiting beaches in places on the south coast, such as Devon or Cornwall, will receive a far higher dose of radiation, from naturally occurring background radiation, than those visiting beaches close to Sellafield," says the spokesman.
Okay, the Sellafield guy might be biased, but that doesn't mean he's fibbing.
Later this summer, I hope to tell you the story about the radioactive banana that you've probably already eaten. And if that story gets you heading to the hills, you better hope they don't sit on granite!
Yosemite photos: Top from Heiko von RauBendorff; middle from chensiyuan, both via Wikimedia. Bottom from Mark Halper (yours truly).
More Fukushima energy coverage on SmartPlanet:
- How to avoid a nuclear meltdown: Question authority
- Utility scale solar for Fukushima
- From Fukushima’s home country: Nuclear will double
- Safe nuclear: Japanese utility elaborates on thorium plans
- Japanese utility mulls thorium
- Nuclear down, CO2 up in Japan, Germany
- Fukushima’s lesson: ‘Alternative’ nuclear, not ‘no’ nuclear
- Floating wind farm on Fukushima’s horizon
A slightly different view on Fukushima radioactivity, from SmartPlanet:
Jul 19, 2012
People need to understand that radiation is indeed everywhere. The boulders in my yard, in the Granite State of New Hampshire, will set off Geiger counters, but at harmless levels. Inside my house is a different story. As houses have become more energy efficient, IE: almost completely air tight and well insulated, scientists have found that the radon gas emitted by decaying granite is being trapped in houses in unhealthy levels. The naturally occurring gas leaks in through basement floors and foundations. It was never a danger before because old construction methods allowed plenty of air leakage and it never built up to toxic levels. To allow for a more efficient, less leaky building design, many homes and businesses in NH and throughout New England have radon venting systems that capture the gas from under the foundation and vent it well clear of the roof line. A quick air quality test in the basement, required in NH when a building without a radon vent is sold, can determine if a vent is needed. Towns can hold up an occupancy permit if a vent is needed. As you said, caution is needed, but not hysteria.
Personally, I would avoid swimming on Fukushimas public beach. That black tie dressed Mr. Halper reminds us that "there is obviously a difference between caution and hysteria", but in his case I would insist that there is only a thin line between naivity and stupidity. Natural radiation and the massive Fukushima fallout are as far apart from each other as is the amount of hydrochlic acid in your stomach from that in the barrels in my backyard! Don't trust your local authorities either, they are 1. faking radiation levels and 2. admit the facts only later, when denial is no longer possible! See for 1: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/07/21/world/asia/japan-nuclear/index.html?hpt=hp_t3 for 2: http://www.prisonplanet.com/operators-admit-fukushima-radiation-levels-exceed-2-12-times-announced-2.html)
Mark, you might want as well to visit the radioactivity of the phosphates in fertilizers (source of radioactivity in bananas) we use on crops. Apparently, there are substantial areas of eastern farm lands that were used for tobacco production that are now over the "safe" radioactivity levels for food production - because of the NPK used on it over the years. "Some phosphate rock deposits are notable for their inclusion of significant quantities of radioactive uranium isotopes. This syndrome is noteworthy because radioactivity can be released into surface waters in the process of application of the resultant phosphate fertilizer (e.g. in many tobacco farming operations in the southeast USA)." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phosphate) Florida also has some problems with the radioactive tailings from rock phosphate fertilizer mining there. Once the largest producer of rock phosphates in the world, the US has started running out in the last decade. We're now importing about 15% of our US phosphate demand from - Morocco. We thought ME foreign oil dependence was problem - wait to we experience foreign fertilizer (food) and biofuel dependence. We're now importing over half (54%) of our food fertilizers. (http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FertilizerTrade/summary.htm)
Part of the reason people react so strongly to any hint of radiation in the environment is a lack of knowledge about how widespread radiation is in the natural world, along with an inability to comprehend dose numbers. Another factor is the persistence of the outdated concept that any increase in exposure equates to increased risk of negative health effects, aka the linear no-threshold (LNT) model http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linear_no-threshold_model. This model has been in trouble for some time as evidence accumulates in favor of the more nuanced and evidence based theory of radiation hormesis http://www.radpro.com/641luckey.pdf. According to this theory, low doses of radiation exposure in excess of normal background levels exerts a number of stimulative and reparative effects at a cellular level that act to improve health. This is supported by large amounts of research evidence, but has been slow to find favor with regulators, resulting in the continued existence of safety standards for public exposure that are excessive. Better recognition of the evidence for radiation hormesis would help to reduce public apprehensions about nuclear energy.
...where the complex entrance was crowded with protesters because the deep space probe being launched had a nuclear reactor on board. One of the more vocal protesters was featured on TV with her 10-year-old daughter; both with glorious golden-brown skin, no doubt tanned by countless hours spent on Florida beaches. I had to wonder if she'd ever figure out that the long hours she and her daughter spent exposing themselves to solar radiation on the beach on a daily basis was far more than the exposure they'd receive from a worst-case-scenario of a launch failure.
through the desert I took my geiger. Found a few rocks that I don't keep under the bed.. It is natural, but sure, less is better.
The feds have not jumped on board yet. Apparently high concentrations of radioactive radon gas have been linked to increases of lung cancer in non-smokers. In most cases it only reaches hazardous levels in the winter months when the house is buttoned up. Opening a window for an hour once a month is sufficient to keep levels safe, but typical of government regulations you must install a permanent venting solution. A radon test is required when a house is sold. If the levels are above X a vent must be installed. Our real estate agent told us to open a basement window for 2 days prior to the test and we would not have to deal with it. My ex-wife closed the windows on me, it was a cool September, and we failed by the thinnest of margins.