The Effect of Radiation from Fukushima

As we have watched Japan surmount the insurmountable in these past few weeks, we have been in genuine awe of the courage, organization and strength of the people as they struggle to cope and get back on track. There are many ways to help. I made my donation to the Red Cross and have recently been inspired by other efforts being made by charities such as Charity Buzz and EMI’s Ebay auction to raise money for Japan. Itunes, meanwhile, has released a Songs for Japan Album.

As there is still so much uncertainty as to what will ultimately transpire at the Fukushima plant, and what the human and environmental impact will be, we asked some of the doctors we work with if there is really anything that can be done to protect ourselves against varying degrees of exposure to radiation.

Love, gp

From Dr. Katja van Herle

In light of all events happening in Japan especially given the trouble at the nuclear power plant, there is a real concern for radiation leakage and what the health issues are revolving around potential exposure. In basic terms, “nuclear waste” involves the emission of radioactive particles that pollute soil, air, and water sources. This nuclear waste can also enter plant, animal and human life cycles and herein lies the ultimate danger.

Some of the most common radioactive particles emitted include: Strontium, Caesium (Cesium), and Iodine not in their most common forms, but in the form of ‘isotopes.’ Isotopes are molecules that are similar to the ‘parent’ compound but have a different number of neutrons in the nucleus. Why does this matter? The number of neutrons can give a molecule a completely different set of nuclear properties, and often ones that become dangerous.

In the case of Strontium, the common radioactive isotope is Strontium-90 and this has been known to contaminate food and water sources, as was evident in the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Strontium-90 finds its way into bone and bone marrow and the resulting diseases caused can include low red blood cell counts, anemia, as well as potential cancers. The concern for Strontium-90 is the incredibly long biologic half-life that it has, almost 30 years. This means that it takes roughly 30 years after exposure, for the body to eliminate half of the radionuclide, or radiation particles. Thus, the time for Strontium-90 to decay is incredibly long, and therefore the exposure time and potential damage caused in the body is significant.

Similar to Strontium-90, Caesium, alternately spelled Cesium, is also a radioactive isotope generated from nuclear waste, and its biologic half life is also approximately 30 years. Caesium also can get into soil and water, it is a metal and the concerns are especially in regards to cancers like thyroid cancer in young children who are exposed. Such tragic cases were reported in Chernobyl.

Finally, radioactive iodine, or Iodine-131, is another major player on the nuclear waste scene. Iodine-131 has been very useful in small doses in the treatment of thyroid cancer, however, in larger doses it may lead to cancer. Young children seem to be at the highest risk after exposure. The good news here is that we know that Iodine-131 has a short biologic half life, in fact it is only 8 days. This means our body can clear and excrete it rapidly, in contrast to Strontium and Caesium.

Given what we know of the dangers of nuclear waste and harmful environmental exposures to nuclear radioactive waste particles, what can we do to protect ourselves? There is much known about protection with potassium iodide supplements, and even the oral intake of natural iodine forms such as iodized salt, and seaweed. The theory being that by taking daily supplements of iodine, there is a blocking of the uptake of the radioactive iodine, thus stopping the harmful effects. This reduction in uptake of Iodine-131 may provide some benefit towards a reduction in thyroid cancer risks and also, there may be a potential reduction of the uptake of a few other dangerous isotopes, though the uptake pathways aren’t yet fully known.

What would be a downside to taking iodine? As endocrinologists, we know that natural iodine is a key building block to our bodies in producing thyroid hormones. The thyroid gland in our neck uses iodine to build our main thyroid hormones, T4 and T3, which set our metabolic tone, energy level, and overall metabolism. There are theories that if we ‘dump’ large amounts of iodine on the thyroid gland, it can either become overwhelmed, and stop producing thyroid hormone, making us tired and start gaining weight. Or, the thyroid can become over stimulated and make too much thyroid hormone, making us speedy and nervous. Neither scenario is good.

The best approach is likely to take the iodine if there is a known, local risk of radioactive waste exposure. The key elements are of course to limit exposure, move from the exposed area, have other sources of food and water, protective clothing and shelter. Radioactive waste exposure is a primary public health concern in catastrophic events, such as has occurred in Japan, however knowing the facts and being prepared to take steps in prevention and protection can make a significant difference.

Dr. Katja Van Herle is an Internist Endocrinologist with an appointment as clinical faculty at the David Geffen University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine. Dr. Van Herle also serves as Co-Founder and President of the All Greater Good Foundation in San Diego, California, an organization formed in 2007 for “education and outreach programs that focus on public health issues and epidemics, as well as helping to fund basic science research pertinent to these issues.

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