The Health Effects of Radioactive Isotopes from Fukushima

Comments

1
They also were distributed in spots. Clumps if you will.

It's not an even spread.

Some areas were fine while others a block away had heavy dosage levels.

Take home message: take some multivitamins, drink your Green Beer or Green Cider, and if it happens near you, avoid local milk.
2
Jonathan Golob. Best science reporting I have got this whole time. All from a rag. Nice work.

Can you explain why these things with such short half lives come from waste that takes tens of thousands of years to decay?
3

People need to seriously think about moving from the coast. Now.

4
Interesting and not very well known fact about Chernobyl is that the Sami people in Northern Scandinavia were hard hit by the fallout. They eat a lot of reindeer meat, and the reindeer eat a lot of lichen. Lichen absorb radioactive materials from the air more than regular plants and levels skyrocketed after Chernobyl. They are still measuring the levels in reindeer meat carefully in that area 25 years later.
http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpubli…
5
Thank you, Mr. Golob.

Finally The Stranger has somebody write about this topic that has some semblance of credibility.

I hope The Stranger editorial staff has learned it's lesson from the egregious fear-mongering shot gunned into the virtual ether in a reflexive axe-grinding panic this past weekend by it's less than scientifically informed writers.

There are plenty of ways, and lots of time, for an informed productive discussion on the safety of nuclear energy. The Slog posts of this weekend were not informed. In fact they were shameful.

I hope the editors of the Stranger can avoid the temptation of hysterical "journalism" in the future should the stakes again be so high.
6
As a lichen eater myself (seriously), I'll take that into consideration, @4.
7
Thanks Jonathan for the great article but you got a fact wrong. Iodine 131 has a half life of slightly more than 8 days, not 6. There is a great study done of patients intentionally given Iodine 131 for an unrelated disease to this discussion. They specifically are investigating the half life and how it effects the body when consumed.

http://jnm.snmjournals.org/cgi/content/a…

Also I like the analogy of the light bulbs. It could be expanded by considering that light bulbs give off heat as well as light and the heat can burn you. If you eat a hot light bulb it will harm you more than if it let off cancer causing UV rays. If you eat something giving off alpha and beta radiation it is much more harmful than some gamma radiation from the actual plant.
8
Your first link has a typo. Have you seen this map of radiation max? Is it accurate? http://www.targetmap.com/viewer.aspx?rep…
9
Japan: Millions go about thier shatered lives, calmly and with dignity attempting to deal with the worst catastrophe in it's modern history.

America: RADIASHUN!!! HOLY SHIT I MIGHT GET CANCER IT THIRTY YEARS!!!! I NEED SOME SORTA PILLS!! ABANDON THE COASTS!!
10
@7: Thanks. I've corrected the original post.

@tkc. Pretty much my opinion at this time. Stating the obvious, vastly more people will die in Japan from the Tsunami and exposure than radiation.
11
Dear leader, you are absolutely right. I really think you should leave immediately. Just leave me your keys, power of attorney, and the title to your house, and I will look after everything for you. you don't need to worry about a thing.
12
@3: you realize Russia and the US detonated thermonuclear devices for forty fucking years before the atmospheric test ban, right? Do you really think a nuclear reactor 4000 miles away will be a more deadly method of disbursing radioactive isotopes than hydrogen bombs in the upper atmosphere?

From a sociological perspective, your hysteria makes sense. The threat of radiation challenges that perennial masturbation fantasy masturbation fantasy of America's - rugged individualism. Radioactive isotopes are invisible, and you're powerless to defend against an enemy you can't see. More significantly, it taps into a deep reservoir of fears within the human psyche. Contamination and poisoning are universal themes in the urban legends of every industrialized culture. Nuclear power also carries a hint of hubris - Frankenstein's monster has returned to kill!

All of these give you a perfectly justifiable reason to panic. But the fact remains, even Chernobyl was barely a blip in the greater scheme of human catastrophe. Over the next 25 years, perhaps four-thousand people have died from various forms of cancer associated with radioactive fallout - the VAST majority of which occurred less than a hundred miles of the plant. How many people were killed in the Indonesian tsunami of 2004? Somewhere around one-hundred thousand.

But please do go and evacuate. Say hi to the family.
13
Please, everyone, it's possible to provide reassuring information without dumping on the people who are worried. I think worry is entirely reasonable in this situation. Public officials are known for downplaying or even outright lying to avoid public panic. And these reassuring statements we keep hearing never seem to address worst-case scenarios. Are these estimates of "no risk to North America" based on what is currently being released? Or on modeling what would happen with a full-scale meltdown of all the reactors? Nobody is being very clear about this issue in their reassuring statements.

A reasonable person can be forgiven for wondering if things are going to get a *lot* worse than they are now, and whoops, the estimates of how much radiation will reach the U.S. go up, and oops, if I want my kid to be protected she should have started taking iodine last week. Maybe these scenarios are *not* reasonable, but nobody is providing enough information for a rational non-expert to be able to be sure that they are not reasonable scenarios.

Also, it is a bullshit argument that I shouldn't be worried about my kid's long-term health because things are so much worse in Japan.
14
Margaret,

The average person has every right to be concerned... and thus the responsibility to educate themselves. Educate yourself.

I take more issue with our supposed gatekeepers who gather eyeballs by making simplistic comparisons (Chernobyl!) and leaping to alarmist conclusions. This not helping anybody.

If your worst fears prove to be true? What are you going to do? Iodine pills? That's not going to help you. Move? Everywhere is down wind in this hemisphere. Yes. Worst case you might get cancer. Well. Shit. You eat red meat? You smoke? You breath coal dust from China? There are a million things that can increase your risk of cancer your exposed to NOW.

It's like after 9/11 people lost thier shit. Worrying about terrorists blowing up schools and ludicrous scenarios like that.

Fear in events like this will NOT make you any more safe. In fact it leads people to make stupid uninformed decisions. Remember what we did in the wake of 9/11? Yeah. Invaded an innocent country, killed tens of thousands of innocent people. And re-elected George Bush.

Everybody needs to calm the fuck down.
15
#13 Nobody here is claiming you should not be concerned for your children's safety. The main point of people like me who are explaining that the threat of nuclear radiation is so low we should not waste our breath on it is that we are wasting our energy on this issue.

If you are concerned the point of research and considering buying tablets for nuclear radiation you need to be freaking the fuck out about car safety. In the United States the leading causes of death for a child are as follows: Motor Vehicle accident, other injury accidents, poisoning, drowning. Motor vehicle accidents make up about 60% of the TOTAL deaths.

My point is not to ignore issues such as nuclear radiation. My point is to focus on much more likely scenarios. I also think that the general population and the news media should be concerned more about political and economic issues than a nuclear reactor.
16
And BTW it's NOT a bullshit argument that the immediat suffering of people in Japan should preclude our potential conerns down the road. Think about it for a minute. They are hurting now. You can do things to help them now. There is little you can do to prevent radiation from blowing across the pacific and MAYBE in twenty years giving you cancer. The more bandwidth we waste worrying about unknown eventualities the less we end up helping people now. The more wasted hadwringing we do the more fear will spread to maybe people in Japan. How does that help?
17
http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/…

This is a great article about how all the coal burning in China and India is effecting our lives in the Pacific Northwest much more than nuclear reactors in Japan. This article is from 2007 and is about the weather during the winter. In the winter of late 2006 and early 2007 people DIED from the flooding.

People are dying in America in part due to COAL burning plants in China. Nobody is having the slightest health effects from nuclear plants in Japan. Please meter out your fear accordingly.
18
While I remain solidly against nuclear energy, I want to thank Jonathan for bringing some sanity to otherwise insane hysteria being peddled by the MSM and others.

For me there are compelling, indisputable truths about how the waste from nuclear power plants will be handled AND truths about repurposing into nuclear weapons.

But the fear mongering right now is offensive.
19
Quit the lecturing, Packeteer and TKC. People are fearful. I'm sure you all have some fears you probably don't want to talk about. Don't criticize people who actually do talk about their fears and don't patronize them by talking about motor vehicle accidents and 9-11. Just mumble to yourselves and let Dr. Golob tell us what we can believe a little more easily than the crap we're hearing from "authorities" in Japan.
20
As is increasingly clear to me, even the absolute worst case scenario is powers of ten safer than the day-to-day operation of conventional coal or oil-fired power plants. We should be driving electric cars and heqating our homes powered by anything but hydrocarbons.
21

Sometimes I feel like the last sentient person on Earth.

Here is obviously the most pressing crisis in the history of the population, based on the potential for millions harmed and everyone is taking a tangential stand on the issue.

9 out of 10 articles on Google News are press releases about how Warren Buffet's MidAmerica thinks nukes are still safe to put in your backyard. Even before this crisis has finished and in a stage where it's escalating logarithmically.

On the other side we have people like #20 who are trying to proseltyze their pet "alternative" energy all the while the ground is falling out from under their feet.

And then there's the vast sea of people who are assuming that this is something "happening over there in Japan" who Tweet an endless stream of "My Heart Is With You, Japan's" when they should be digging bomb shelters and hooking up with any inland relatives they may have.

This whole scenario reminds me of the movie "Mars Attacks", where the Martians show no cares for what we humans think, and yet people still try to reason with them while they slice up everyone with no remorse!

Here, watch this...and replace Martians with Nuke-U-Lar Power:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMdC45S79…

22
I wonder if the short biological half-life (how long whatever stays around in your body) of cesium and strontium (compared to the relatively long physical half-life) also limits their bad effects once absorbed. For example tritium (a radioactive form of hydrogen) has a half-life of 12 years or so, but tritiated water (water where the hydrogen(s) are tritium) has a biological half life of 24 hours.

@2 Nuclear reactor waste contains elements (e.g. uranium) that have much, much longer half-lives than the 8 days for I-131. Prolonged exposure to that stuff is also bad.

My question thought is why is it that people aren't worried about the uranium itself from the reactors. I assume it's because it's much harder to disperse? Is there way more radioactive lighter stuff sitting around?
23
@19, I agree with you. I've encountered a lot of supposed rational people become more emotional and rigid about their own set of beliefs in the face of their own little meltdown. They sound like Sunday preachers, yet they're far more deluded because they actually believe wholeheartedly the horseshit they're spewing graph after graph after graph proselytizing and telling you how to channel your fear.
24
@22: the shorter the half-life, the more dangerous (depending on what kind of radiation we're talking about, all things equal on that front).

Very short-half life material means that it is decaying REALLY fast. Which means it is emitting a LOT of radiation VERY intensely.

Most people get this really confused, and think that the ten-thousand year persistance of some elements is somehow scarier. In a sense it is if there's enough concentration because it's basically forever (in a human timescale). But if something has a really long half-life, that means it's NOT decaying very much, and so NOT releasing very much at all of what it's releasing.

That's why it's the stuff like iodine with much shorter half-lives that are much more imminently dangerous, because it's so much more intense.

Think of the danger of a single-shot musket to you over time that is slowly firing every minute or so (as fast as the guy can reload it), which is a long half-life. It will take a VERY long time for this guy to go through his ammunition while shooting at you. Maybe he hits you a few times as you stand there.

A short half-life is like standing in front of a gatlin gun that is unleashing several thousand rounds per minute at you. This will run out of ammunition really quickly, but it is doing MASSIVE damage as you stand there being ripped to smithereens.
25
By the way, to the above point, stable elements have half-lives that are astronomically long. Which means they basically don't normally decay, and so aren't dangerous. That's like standing in front of a guy who isn't even bothering to shoot at you but once in a million years, maybe if he feels like it, but he's too busy eating a sandwich.

The longer the half-life, the safer the material, basically.
26
Thanks for the great information, Science.
27
@12 That's an apples and oranges comparison. There are hundreds of tons of nuke fuel (and spent fuel) at that site. A fire in a waste pond (is it still a pond if it doesn't have any water?) of "spent" fuel can potentially release far more deadly material than than dozens of fission bombs. That's because even though the fuel wasn't in a bomb, it was merrily held in a fissioning state for months on end and is now far more radioactive, pound for pound, than the stuff they put in bombs, the radioactivity not being directly related to whether the stuff is still economically useful in a reactor, except maybe inversely.
28
I know Golob has a lot of fans but I'm not much of one. Calling what he does "sanity" is a mistake; Dear Science's point of view is in fact its own special kind of madness.

Golob's complacent, status quo reinforcing brand of crazy is just different, and more reasonable sounding, than those tearing off their clothes running around in a panic.
29
@28: Yes, rational, fact-based analysis is just as crazy as irrational, fear-based speculation. Just as crazy.

Funny how people are happy to listen to science when the conclusions it reaches favour their viewpoints (cf. climate change) and quick to throw it aside when it doesn't.
30
@29

Jonathan Golob is not really science; that's just a cute handle for his column. Science is a system of checks and balances, peer review, rechecking, proof, and reproducibility. Challenge, above all.

What Golob practices here is punditry; he's not doing science. He is not the personification of science, nor is he the infallible spokesman for science. He's just soapboxing, no different than Rush Limbaugh or Dan Savage or Michelle Bachmann. Much like Dr. Laura Schlessinger, his biggest fans mistake the PhD after his name (in some other field, just like Dr. Laura, by the way) for an imprimatur of "truth". All of them cite "science" and "studies" and "research" to back up their claims, and some are better at it than others. To his credit, Golob is probably more grounded than the other, more unhinged, loudmouths I mentioned. Yet if you read with a critical eye, you'll notice Golob frequently talks in generalities about math and his passing acquaintance with math, but rarely shows his work. Read though some of his old columns if you think he does.

But he's not doing science here, and listening to Golob is not "listening to science."
31
@30: Thank you, I had figured out that Golob was not actually Science Incarnate. He's a science reporter, and what he is doing here is reporting on science. Reporting, for example, about the half-life of Iodine-131 and how that affects the likelihood of any health effects from its release in Japan on the population of the West Coast of North America. Or reporting on studies of the long-term effects of exposure to radioactive Cesium and Strontium.

Factual reporting of scientific studies. Yes, he's drawing conclusions from these and offering opinions, but at least they have a solid basis in reality, not in fearful ignorance.
32
Karmic justice!There really is Karmic justice!Japan's getting what it deserves.Spend no money on trying to help them.When a nation has done so many others wrong,now they get their comeuppence!
33
@30: False equivalence.

"One person who holds has a perspective on an issue must be equally untrustworthy as another person who has a perspective on something else."
34
Thanks, Mr. Golob, these are among the best articles I've read, neither pandering nor alarmist.

And that's not a slam at Goldy, I understand completely where he's coming from.
35
Jonathan~

Thank you for your readable, yet detailed explanations.

One question I have not seen addressed is where all the water being used to douse the reactors and spent fuel rods is going? Much of it evaporates, but is some of the contaminated water running off into the ocean or local drainage systems? Is this another pathway for the radiation into the environment? How significant would that be to public health and the food chain?
36
Top notch writing. Solidly grounded in acurate data.
37
Barak Gaster! I've wondered whether you exist in between Savage Love special podcasts.