Daily Archives: March 17, 2011

Questions about radiation exposure & potassium iodide pills

In the past couple of days, as many of us started to think seriously about the fallout from the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, I’ve gotten lots of questions about potassium iodide pills—”Why do people take them?”, “How do they work?”, “Should my family take them?”

I’ve spoken with several health physicists—researchers at American universities and at the Mayo Clinic—and I think that I can now answer these questions well enough to post something to BoingBoing. This is a scary, nerve-wracking topic for a lot of people, so I’m not going to bury the information down in a narrative. We’ll just get right to the point. In fact, I think that I can clear up most of the confusion by answering four questions.
What are potassium iodide pills?
Basically, potassium iodide is just a specific kind of salt. Nothing fancy. The same stuff is often put into table salt as a way to get iodine into the diets of people who don’t eat much naturally iodine-containing food. Iodine, itself, is an element that’s important to the human body. Without it, the thyroid gland can’t make certain hormones. If you don’t eat enough iodine, especially as a kid, you’ll end up with goiters, fatigue, depression—and worse. Thanks to iodized salt (and diverse diets), those of us who live in industrialized nations don’t have to think about whether we’re getting enough iodine. And, thus, we don’t think too much about potassium iodide. Until there’s a risk of radioactive fallout.

How do potassium iodide pills protect against radiation?

Elements come in two forms: Stable and radioactive, the latter of which are prone to breaking apart, shooting out particles that can damage cells and DNA. There’s good ol’ stable iodine—the stuff that keeps our bodies functioning properly. And there’s radioactive iodine—which is dangerous.
Radioactive iodine is dangerous precisely because, within the human body, it does the same thing that stable iodine does. It goes straight to the thyroid gland.
Once there, radioactive iodine can damage cells and DNA and increases the risk of thyroid cancer. But, there’s a catch. The thyroid can only hold so much iodine at a time. Once the shelves are full, any new iodine that shows up is simply excreted back out of the body until the supply needs to be restocked again.
That’s where potassium iodide pills come in. If radioactive iodine is present, you can prevent it from getting into your thyroid gland by having the gland already full of stable, safe iodine—the kind found in potassium iodide pills. Because radioactive iodine has a short half-life—by this Saturday, March 19, half of all the radioactive iodine released by the reactors at Fukushima will be gone—affected people don’t have to take potassium iodide pills forever. Just long enough for the radioactive iodine to break apart and vanish.
Key takeaway from this part: Potassium iodide pills will only protect against the effects of radioactive iodine in the thyroid. There’s other radioisotopes being released by the Fukushima reactors, and potassium iodide can’t do anything about them.

What are the risks of taking potassium iodide pills?

There are risks. The big one: You might be allergic to potassium iodide pills. This is particularly likely if you are already allergic to shellfish. The allergic reactions could be life threatening, and there’s not really a good way to know whether you’ll be allergic to the pills until you try one.

But there’s another risk, too. There’s not an unlimited supply of potassium iodide pills. If people living in places unaffected by radioactive iodine buy up lots of potassium iodide pills, it means there are fewer of those pills available for the people who really need them. That’s why the Union of Concerned Scientists recently put out a press release asking Americans to refrain from buying—or, worse, stockpiling—supplies of potassium iodide pills. People in Japan need them. Which brings us to the final question:

Will radioactive fallout from Fukushima reach the West Coast of the United States?

The answer depends on what you mean. If you mean, “Will radioactive fallout from Japan reach the West Coast in quantities that could increase the risk of cancer for me and my family?” Then the answer is, “No.”
The risks of exposure to radiation are dependent on the dose. As it travels across the Pacific Ocean, the concentrated radioactive fallout that leaves Fukushima will become diluted—some will fall out into the ocean, some will drift away on the breeze, some of the isotopes—including radioactive iodine—will even break apart, becoming something else, something not dangerous.
By the time any of the radioactive isotopes reach American shores, the fallout will be so dilute that radiation will have dropped well below the levels that cause detectable increases in the risk of cancer. There will not be a reason for Americans to worry about their health. This is according to Kelly Classic, radiation physicist at the Mayo Clinic; Kimberlee Kearfott, health physicist at the University of Michigan; Ralf Sudowe, health physicist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas; Kathryn A. Higley, health physicist at Oregon State University; Jason T. Harris, health physicist at Idaho State University and, if you read the link above, The Union of Concerned Scientists.
It will be possible to detect radiation from Fukushima in the United States. But that’s because the tools we have for detecting radiation are incredibly sensitive. We can spot radiation at levels far lower than those that can actually increase our risk of cancer. Frankly, that’s a good thing. It means we can see problems before they build into something serious. It means we can accurately measure dangerous levels of radiation without having to get scientists too close to the radiation source. And, it will mean that we will be able to see very low levels of radiation from Fukushima in the United States, even though the risk from that radiation will be something we can shrug off.
I know this doesn’t answer all of your questions, but I hope it helps. I’ll be back tomorrow with more information on issues like what happens to radioisotopes that get inside your body, how Fukushima will affect the food chain, why it’s mostly OK for radioisotopes to fall into the Pacific Ocean.


Original article posted here by Maggie Koerth-Baker


1 Comment

Filed under Fukushima, Iodine Pills, Japan

Helicopter flyover of Japanese nuclear plant shows scary apocalyptic scene

Helicopter video of Japan’s troubled Fukushima Nuclear plant from yesterday indicates how extensive the damage at the plant is from the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent explosions.

Read On

Leave a comment

Filed under Fukushima, Japan

A Personal Account Of The Earthquake From A Hotel Room

I  SET out from my home in the port city of Yokohama early in the afternoon last Friday, and shortly before 3 p.m. I checked into my hotel in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo. I usually spend three or four days a week there to write, gather material and take care of other business.

The earthquake hit just as I entered my room. Thinking I might end up trapped beneath rubble, I grabbed a container of water, a carton of cookies and a bottle of brandy and dived beneath the sturdily built writing desk. Now that I think about it, I don’t suppose there would have been time to savor a last taste of brandy if the 30-story hotel had fallen down around me. But taking even this much of a countermeasure kept sheer panic at bay.
Before long an emergency announcement came over the P.A. system: “This hotel is constructed to be absolutely earthquake-proof. There is no danger of the building collapsing. Please do not attempt to leave the hotel.” This was repeated several times. At first I wondered if it was true. Wasn’t the management merely trying to keep people calm?
And it was then that, without really thinking about it, I adopted my fundamental stance toward this disaster: For the present, at least, I would trust the words of people and organizations with better information and more knowledge of the situation than I. I decided to believe the building wouldn’t fall. And it didn’t.
The Japanese are often said to abide faithfully by the rules of the “group” and to be adept at forming cooperative systems in the face of great adversity. That would be hard to deny today. Valiant rescue and relief efforts continue nonstop, and no looting has been reported.
Away from the eyes of the group, however, we also have a tendency to behave egoistically — almost as if in rebellion. And we are experiencing that too: Necessities like rice and water and bread have disappeared from supermarkets and convenience stores. Gas stations are out of fuel. There is panic buying and hoarding. Loyalty to the group is being tested.
At present, though, our greatest concern is the crisis at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. There is a mass of confused and conflicting information. Some say the situation is worse than Three Mile Island, but not as bad as Chernobyl; others say that winds carrying radioactive iodine are headed for Tokyo, and that everyone should remain indoors and eat lots of kelp, which contains plenty of safe iodine, which helps prevent the absorbtion of the radioactive element. An American friend advised me to flee to western Japan.
Some people are leaving Tokyo, but most remain. “I have to work,” some say. “I have my friends here, and my pets.” Others reason, “Even if it becomes a Chernobyl-class catastrophe, Fukushima is 170 miles from Tokyo.”
My parents are in western Japan, in Kyushu, but I don’t plan to flee there. I want to remain here, side by side with my family and friends and all the victims of the disaster. I want to somehow lend them courage, just as they are lending courage to me.
And, for now, I want to continue the stance I took in my hotel room: I will trust the words of better-informed people and organizations, especially scientists, doctors and engineers whom I read online. Their opinions and judgments do not receive wide news coverage. But the information is objective and accurate, and I trust it more than anything else I hear.
Ten years ago I wrote a novel in which a middle-school student, delivering a speech before Parliament, says: “This country has everything. You can find whatever you want here. The only thing you can’t find is hope.”
One might say the opposite today: evacuation centers are facing serious shortages of food, water and medicine; there are shortages of goods and power in the Tokyo area as well. Our way of life is threatened, and the government and utility companies have not responded adequately.
But for all we’ve lost, hope is in fact one thing we Japanese have regained. The great earthquake and tsunami have robbed us of many lives and resources. But we who were so intoxicated with our own prosperity have once again planted the seed of hope. So I choose to believe.
Originally published on NYTIMES by RYU MURAKAMI
Ryu Murakami is the author of “Popular Hits of the Showa Era.” This article was translated by Ralph F. McCarthy from the Japanese.

Leave a comment

Filed under Earthquake, Fukushima, Japan

‘We’re not running away’: Fukushima worker

ONE lone voice has emerged from the group of heroic workers at Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco), which runs the quake-stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, where workers are scrambling to cool the nuclear plant and avoid a meltdown.

Michiko Otsuki – a female worker at Tepco – has written on her blog, speaking up for her ‘silent’ colleagues who remained behind at the plant.

She had been quoted a little in some overseas English reports but The Straits Times Online tracked and translated her blog to find out her full story when she first posted on popular Japanese social networking site Mixi.

By Thursday however, her post had been taken down, but the entry had already been reproduced by several online blogs and in Japanese language forums.

Ms Otsuki is one of the 800 employees evacuated from the plant on Monday, leaving 50 workers behind to battle the nuclear crisis.

On Tuesday, she addressed the growing criticisms levelled at Tepco.

‘People have been flaming Tepco,’ she said. ‘But the staff of Tepco have refused to flee, and continue to work even at the peril of their own lives. Please stop attacking us.’

Tepco, which powers Japan’s capital and largest city Tokyo, is one of the main players in the world of Japanese nuclear power, with a history of safety violations.

Even Prime Minister Naoto Kan, frustrated that an explosion featured in the news had not been reported to the Prime Minister’s office, is reported to have burst into an executive meeting at the company and demanded what was going on.

However, Ms Otsuki’s blog post gives the world a glimpse of the tireless, faceless crew – now dubbed the Fukushima 50 – who are working on the frontline to stop the nuclear crisis from escalating, risking the effects of radiation. In the most severe cases, radiation can lead to higher chances of developing cancer, or even death.

‘As a worker at Tepco and a member of the Fukushima No. 2 reactor team, I was dealing with the crisis at the scene until yesterday (Monday).’

‘In the midst of the tsunami alarm (last Friday), at 3am in the night when we couldn’t even see where we going, we carried on working to restore the reactors from where we were, right by the sea, with the realisation that this could be certain death,’ she said.

‘The machine that cools the reactor is just by the ocean, and it was wrecked by the tsunami. Everyone worked desperately to try and restore it. Fighting fatigue and empty stomachs, we dragged ourselves back to work.

‘There are many who haven’t gotten in touch with their family members, but are facing the present situation and working hard.’

Battling On

‘Please remember that. I want this message to reach even just one more person. Everyone at the power plant is battling on, without running away.

‘To all the residents (around the plant) who have been alarmed and worried, I am truly, deeply sorry.

‘I am writing my name down, knowing I will be abused and hurt because of this. There are people working to protect all of you, even in exchange for their own lives.

‘Watching my co-workers putting their lives on the line without a second thought in this situation, I’m proud to be a member of Tepco, and a member of the team behind Fukushima No. 2 reactor.

‘I hope to return to the plant and work on the restoration of the reactor.’

But her pleas seem to have gone unheard. The original post has now been taken down and she has instead posted an apology: ‘I am very sorry, but I have locked the post as it was being used in a way I had not intended it to be.

‘Having seen what’s happening on the ground, my message to all of you remains the same. But others have changed the contents of the post and used it for the wrong reasons, like fanning fear amongst others, and I have therefore decided to lock my post.

‘I am praying from the bottom of my heart for the safety of your loved ones. I am sorry it (the blog post) has turned out this way.’


Originally Published in Strait Times by Hannah Koh


Filed under Fukushima, Japan, Nuclear, Tsunami