In March of 2011, the strongest earthquake in Japanese history caused a tsunami whose almost 80 foot waves destroyed the area of the Fukushima nuclear facility, rating a level 7 out of 7 event according to the International Nuclear Event scale. Radiation leaked out both directly into the sea as well as into the groundwater, and by all accounts, is still leaking. Radioactive cesium-137 and iodine-131 compromised most of the radiologic contamination. While the iodine-131 has a half life of 8 days, the cesium-137 is about 30 years. This means the radioactive iodine has a limited threat, but it will take over 200 years for the cesium radiation to lower to almost undetectable levels. Since cesium is easily absorbed into many foods, including milk and fish, this is a long-term unknown.
Is Radiation Getting Into Your Food?
Radiation in Fish
Radionuclides traveled through the air, and reached California and Mexico a little over a week after the accident. Current informal Geiger counter readings on the West coast of California, as reported on RT.com, suggest a three to five fold increase over normal radioactivity. A June 2012 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) revealed, without question, that blue fin tuna have carried radioactive cesium across the ocean to the North Pacific. Cesium radiation is not normal in nature and was not detected before the Fukushima event, except in low background levels (which actually originated from nuclear weapon testing from the 1950’s and 60’s).
A 2013 PNAS study supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and headed by Nicholas Fisher and colleagues looked at a number of previous studies and concluded:
‘additional doses from Fukushima radionuclides … are comparable to, or less than, the dose all humans routinely obtain from naturally occurring radionuclides in many food items, medical treatments, air travel, or other background sources.’ (Fisher, 2013)
FDA.gov states that there is ‘no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern.’ As of June of 2013, the FDA testing of Japanese foods imported to the U.S. found only one ginger powder as in an unacceptable range.
National Public Radio also reported that the level of radiation in the fish from Fukushima is still 30 times less than what already remains from nuclear weapon testing from the 50’s and 60’s. If we trust the FDA and NPR sources, and since the U.S. imports 45 million pounds of fish from Japan, we can conclude that it is likely that some radiation from Fukushima is indeed getting to your table, but the amounts may not be hazardous.
Radiation in Tea
The U.S. imports over 1500 metric tons of Japanese tea, In 2011 French customs detected very high levels of cesium radionuclides in shipments from the Shizuoka Prefecture, the largest tea-producing area in Japan. These shipments were not allowed to enter France. Reports from Japan suggest readings in fresh leaves have dropped into safe ranges of the low double digits as of last year.
Radiation in Milk
In July of 2013, expectedly high levels of cesium-137 were found in Tokyo’s powdered milk products. Unfortunately, air currents have also carried the radionuclide to the U.S. as well. In April of 2011, Forbes and the New York Times reported the E.P.A’s announcement of Fukushima radioactivity in the drinking water of 13 American cities, and low level cesium-137 was detected in Washington state and Vermont milks. In April of 2012, the San Francisco Bay Area’s milk showed double the maximum allowed contamination (McMahon, 2011 and Wald, 2011).
Radiation in Seaweed
Since most of the seaweed imported into the United States comes from Canada and Mexico, at this point the seaweed is not more hazardous than any of the other food grown or raised in the continental United States.
Conclusion About Radiation Exposure
Overall, having any extra radiation in our lives probably isn’t as safe as any of us would like, but it seems from the available data, the Fukushima event may not create any more hazard than what we have already been dealt from military, industrial and natural radiation, which we already believe are co-factors in cancer and other common health challenges.
What You Can Do To Protect Yourself
Most frustratingly, the EPA.gov website offers the frequently asked question: “How Can I Protect Myself and My Family from Cesium-137” and only answers by saying there is “nothing you can do if it is in the environment, but the risk is small anyway.” While somewhat true, this is not at all helpful, or totally accurate.
As a naturopathic physicians, we are trained to help each of our patients consider the underlying cause, as well as use the least toxic remedies to help the body do it’s best to protect itself and heal. Based on my research, these are my recommendations:
1 – Fix the Underlying Cause: Studies around the Indian Point nuclear facility clearly show clusters of radioactive iodine- induced thyroid cancer in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York area. Despite claiming to not have any leaks, Rockland County has the highest rate of thyroid cancer of all New York counties, with a 67% increased rate of thyroid cancer over U.S. normal rate – all numbers that were normal before the plant was built (Mangano, 2009).
It seems lunacy to have a nuclear plant like Indian Point so close to such a densely populated area – this and other nuclear plants have to go.
If the world made it a priority to supplant the nuclear power plant for safer, and renewable energy (like wind and solar), this worry would be eliminated. It is worth all of our time to work at local and federal levels to learn what the policy is in your area, and continually let your politicians and people of influence know that you will no longer tolerate this threat when safer options are available. Go to http://www.senate.gov and http://www.house.gov to write to your federal legislators, and also visit your state legislator sites as well.
2 - Bring the anxiety down a notch: while radiation concerns are completely valid, the Washington Post reported that the greatest threats to physical and emotional health following the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accidents were due to ‘anxiety and stress, and not radiation exposure.’ If you are very anxious about this issue, work with a therapist to learn ways to healthily process your worries, and bring it into perspective. The more you worry, the more likely you are to get sick, from any condition (Stein, 2011).
3 – Eat Well: Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The potassium, iodine, and antioxidants found in fresh fruits and vegetables may help protect the body from the damage caused by radiation. For example, potassium is a similar element to cesium, and can help clearance of that radionuclide, according to animal studies. Similarly, if a person is iodine deficient, a release of radioactive iodine would be more easily absorbed by the body and brought into the thyroid to cause cancer. High potassium is found in sweet potatoes, apricots, bananas, and kiwi. Higher concentrations of iodine are in seaweed (like kelp), eggs, yogurt, and strawberries.
4 – Avoid toxins when possible: other toxins like heavy metals, pesticides, pollution, and contaminated water will limit your body’s ability to deal with radiation. Try to eat organic foods, take off your shoes before entering the home, avoid metal amalgams and aluminum, and consider high quality water and air filters for your home.
5 – Exercise, Drink Plenty of Water and Get 8 Hours of Sleep: These basics of good health can help keep your DNA repair mechanisms working their best. In the event of a radiation contamination, better repair means less chance of getting sick.
6 – Consider Supplementing Your Body with Iodine, Antioxidants and Vitamin D. Low dose, regular iodine supplementation may be helpful if you are not taking in foods or iodized salt. Before taking iodine, check with your doctor if this is best for you, for some thyroid conditions will be made worse with supplementation. Keeping up general anti-oxidant status by taking low doses of extra vitamin A,C, E, zinc, and selenium may be helpful, although it is not clear if there is greater benefit than eating the healthy fruits and vegetables with these vitamins in their natural state. Some research also suggests adequate vitamin D levels are beneficial to protect the body from common background exposure.
7 – Supplements to Have On Hand for Emergency Exposure:
- potassium supplementation: may be useful if you believe you are being exposed to cesium 137. Potassium supplementation should be monitored by a doctor if a patient has kidney problems or is taking certain types of blood pressure medications.
- spirulina: studies show how the phytopigments from this health food store favorite benefitted in children after the Chernobyl accident by helping escort radiation out of the body (50% decreased in 20 days using 5 grams a day) (Loseva et al., 1993).
- potassium iodide: is an over-the-counter supplement which well-known to protect the thyroid from uptake of iodine-131 in the case of a leak.
- Vitamin C: One report suggests that highly exposed Fukushima reactor workers who took both i.v. and oral vitamin C continuously during exposure had no change in DNA damage markers or risk assessment for cancer, whereas workers who did not take it did show negative changes.
- Alpha lipoic acid and Vitamin E: oral intake helped lower the amount of radioactivity found in the urine irradiated children after Chernobyl. (Korkina, 1993)
- Prussian blue: this is ferrocyanide, and is used in capsule form as an antidote for cesium poisoning. It needs to be prescribed by a doctor, and you can ask your doctor if this would be accessible to you in case of an emergency.
About Dr. Bongiorno: Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc is co-director of Inner Source Health in New York, and author of How Come They're Happy and I'm Not? The complete naturopathic guide to healing depression for good. More about him can be found through www.drpeterbongiorno.com and his clinic www.InnerSourceHealth.com.
Fisher NS, Beaugelin-Seiller K, Hinton TG, Baumann Z, Madigan DJ, Garnier-Laplace J. Evaluation of radiation doses and associated risk from the Fukushima nuclear accident to marine biota and human consumers of seafood. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jun 25;110(26):10670-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221834110. Epub 2013 Jun 3.
Loseva LP and Dardynskaya IV. Spirulina- natural sorbent of radionucleides Sep 1993. Research Institute of Radiation Medicine, Minsk, Belarus. 6th Int'l Congress of Applied Algology, Czech Republic. Belarus.
Korkina L. et al. Antioxidant therapy in children affected by irradiation from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Biochem Soc Trans. 1993;21:314S. PMID:8224459
Mangano JJ. Geographic variation in U.S. thyroid cancer incidence and a cluster near nuclear reactors in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Int J Health Serv. 2009;39(4):643-61.
McMahon J. Radiation Detected In Drinking Water In 13 More US Cities, Cesium-137 In Vermont Milk . April 2011. http://www.forbes.com/fdc/welcome_mjx.shtml accessed on March 31, 2014
Stein R. Fear is potent risk of Japanese nuclear crisis. March 2011. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/14/AR2011031405086.html accessed March 31, 2014
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://statecancerprofiles.cancer.gov. Rates per 100,000, adjusted to 2000 U.S. standard population.
Wald ML. Low Levels of Radiation Found in American Milk. New York Times.March 30, 2011.
Yanagisawa A. Effect of Vitamin C and antioxidative nutrition on radiation-induced gene expression in Fukushima nuclear plant workers. www.doctoryourself.com/radiation_VitC.pptx.pdf accessed on March 31, 2014