Ecocentric

Radiation Reaches the U.S.! And…?

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America is a great country, but we do tend to make other people’s dramas our own. You know that uncle who comes over to Thanksgiving dinner, hears about another relative who recently had a heart attack and spends the rest of the meal asking everyone at the table if they think the chest pain he had last week is serious too? Well, to rest of the world, that’s us.

One more time so we can all get onto our mince pie: A 5,000-mi. ocean separates the U.S. from Japan. It’s a very windy ocean. Many radioactive isotopes are very heavy, which means they don’t go far before falling out of the sky. (And don’t freak out about the accidental use of  fallout phraseology here.) It’s true that, according to a 2:23 PM story from the AP,  a minuscule  radioactive uptick has been detected in Sacramento, Calif. But it’s also true, according to a UN diplomat working with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (who asked the AP for anonymity because the organization doesn’t comment on its testing methods) that the radiation detected is “about a billion times below levels what would be health threatening.”

Steven Reese, the director of the Radiation Center at Oregon State also told the AP that the principal elements in the trans-Pacific mix would be cesium and iodine, which would combine with sea spray to become cesium chloride and sodium iodide—already harmlessly abundant over the ocean. Rainfall and winds will also help scrub the air.

Still, as my colleague Alice Park reported on Healthland, fears of radiation have caused Americans to empty store shelves of potassium iodide, which can be a hedge against thyroid cancer. But that disease is caused  by radioactive iodine—not cesium—and only when  levels are high enough. Depressingly, if perhaps inevitably, this has led unscrupulous hucksters to begin selling fake potassium iodide tablets.

The radiation problem is very real, but it has been—and continues to be—hard-hit Japan’s alone. At the outer edge of the 30 km danger zone, today’s highest readings were about 150 microsieverts, down from 170 the day before. A person who remained in that vicinity would absorb the peak amount of radiation deemed safe for an entire year in about six to seven hours. A dose like that, admittedly, is not a good thing. But the Japanese  have required anyone living within 20 km to evacuate and from 20 to 30 km to stay inside with the doors and windows shut.

Much closer to the plant, of course, radiation levels are much higher—a terrifying 3,484 microsieverts per hour 500 m from the reactor. That’s part of the reason  the heroic technicians who have stayed behind to cool the reactors—whom the folks here at Time have begun admiringly referring to as “the Fukushima Fifty”—deserve our prayers.

Japan itself deserves the same, and it also deserves our support. Providing that means putting our own misplaced worries aside.

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