The very word makes people fearful. These days there is some real cause for concern, but how much concern? And what do we do about it? Fear without knowledge is a scary spiral into panic. So let’s talk a bit about radiation. What does the word mean? Radiation is energy that is originated from a particular source and travels away from the source through space or matter. Light, sound, and heat are all examples of radiating energy. This kind of radiation of energy is called non-ionizing radiation. Other examples include infrared radiation, radio waves, cellphone radiation, and microwave radiation. There are questions about the biological effects of cell phones and microwaves, for example, but that is a topic for another day. Some radiation however, comes from unstable atoms which have an excess of energy. This is called ionizing radiation. Unstable atoms are defined as radioactive. In order to get stable again, they radiate (give off) the excess energy and mass. You may remember Einstein’s famous equation: E=mc2 . This equation relates matter to energy. In fact in certain circumstances, it says matter and energy are the same. Electromagnetic radiation (like light, sound, heat) is well known to us and we couldn’t live our lives without this radiation. We wouldn’t see or hear anything if this radiation of energy didn’t occur. Particulate radiation happens when the energies are much greater. When this occurs, mass is given off too. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to change the atoms it encounters. X-rays (energy comes from electrons), and Gamma radiation (energy comes from the nucleus) are examples of ionizing electromagnetic radiation. Beta (a high speed particle identical to an electron that comes from the nucleus of an atom) and alpha (particle emitted from a nucleus of an atom that contains two protons and two neutrons) radiation are examples of particulate radiation.
Irradiation is exposure to penetrating radiation. This happens when part or all of the body is exposed to radiation from an unshielded source. This external irradiation doesn’t make people radioactive. Radioactive contamination occurs when material which contains radioactive atoms comes into contact with skin or clothing or anything else where we don’t want it. The person who has been contaminated with radioactive material will continue to be irradiated until the radioactive material is removed.
The term for the amount of ionizing radiation received by a person is called a “Sievert” (Sv). The effect of radiation is a factor of how much and how fast the exposure occurs. 1 sievert received all at once will make you sick. 2-4 will likely kill you. If you receive the dosage slowly over time, your body can usually deal with the damage and cumulative effects over a span of time are also looked at carefully. The fact is that we live on a radiative planet. There is no way to escape radiation and we wouldn’t want to because we would instantly freeze, and have no vision or hearing! (Not that this would matter if you were quick-frozen!)
Just sleeping next to someone in bed at night will expose you to 0.05 micro-sieverts. (a micro-sievert is one millionth of one sievert). Eating a banana exposes you to 0.1 micro-sievert. Using a CRT monitor for a year will expose you to 1 micro-sievert. The depth of the atmosphere winnows out the cosmic radiation present at ground level so the higher you are, the less protection you have. One day on the Colorado plateau exposes you to 1.2 micro-sievert . The background dose for a normal person having a normal day is 10 micro-sieverts. A chest x-ray exposes you to 20 micro-sieverts. If you live in a stone, brick or concrete home, you are exposed to 70 micro-sieverts per year. An airplane flight from New York to Los Angeles exposes you to 40 micro-sieverts. Potassium is often radioactive. The natural potassium in your body (yes, it’s naturally radioactive) exposes you to 390 micro-sieverts per year. Total background exposure for a normal person per year is 3.65 milli-sieverts per year. (A milli-sievert is one thousand micro-sieverts.) 85% of this is from natural sources (the rest from medical scans). A CT scan of the chest exposes you to 5.8 milli-sieverts (5,800 micro-sieverts!). The maximum permitted dose for US radiation workers is 50 milli-sieverts. The lowest dose that has been linked to increased cancer risk is 100 milli0sieverts. 400 milli-sieverts received in a short time can cause symptoms of radiation poisoning. Severe radiation poisoning (sometimes fatal) occurs with exposure at 2000 milli-sieverts (2Sv). 4 Sv causes extreme radiation poisoning, survival may be possible with rapid treatment. 8Sv is fatal even with treatment.
We have been talking about the biologically received dose of radiation, what it does if it is present inside the body. This “sievert” is figured by measuring the dosage absorbed and then multiplied by a factor that describes the damage of this type of radiation in the body. There are many different terms being used today and the U.S. health physics community uses different terms than the International Standard. Terms you may read about include “Rad” (radiation absorbed dose) which describes just what it says, the amount that has been absorbed into some material. It does not describe the biological effect of the different radiations which is why the sievert is used internationally. “Rem” (roentgen equivalent man) does relate the absorbed dose to the effective biological damage of the radiation.
Effects of radiation are many. They include somatic effects which are effects from some agent, like medical radiation to treat cancers. Genetic effects are seen in the offspring of individuals who have been (pre-conception) exposed to radiation. Teratogenic effects occur when an individual has been exposed while pregnant. Stochastic effects occur on a random basis and is independent of the size of the dose although more likely with increased dose. Cancer occurring after irradiation is a stochastic effect. Non-stochastic effects are related to the dosage received and increase in damage with increased dosage. A skin burn from radiation exposure is a non-stochastic effect.
So what happens when someone is exposed to ionizing radiation? I am going to illustrate the effects, but I am doing so not to make you more afraid, but rather to educate you so you can understand if and when you are in danger. Obviously, this is dosage related as explored above, but the symptoms are identical to those of patients receiving radiation therapy for cancer. First signs include nausea, fatigue, possible reddening of the skin and often vomiting. Next come hair loss and diarrhea. Usually patient exposure stops at this point in radiation therapy, however, if the dosage continues, there is destruction of the intestinal lining (these are fast growing cells and they can’t grow new cells if radiation has attacked the genome in the nucleus of the cells that tells what proteins to make for the new growth. Radiation always affects faster growing cells first because of this and is why you hair falls out. Central nervous system damage occurs next, then loss of consciousness and eventually, death.
What do we need to do about this? I think you need to stay calm and assess situations as they evolve. Often there is nothing you need to do because exposure is low and your body will most likely take care of it. Remember we are a self-healing organism. We were born onto a planet bathed in the radiation from the sun, and radiative materials are everywhere and always have been. The problem is when the dosage accelerates and your body can’t handle the onslaught. Once the symptoms of radiation damage have occurred, there is little to be done from a western medical point of view. The best way to deal with radiation is not to be exposed to it. Recent articles indicate that radiation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi has been measured at 400 milli-sieverts per hour. This is one big reason why they have moved the population away from the plant. Radioactive iodine-131 released into the atmosphere comes back down in the rain. Fields of grass and crops uptake the radioactive iodine and the first indications were found in the milk from cows who ate the grass. So milk and dairy products should not be eaten if contamination has occurred. This is the best way to avoid the radioactive iodine. There is a lot of talk about using potassium iodide to diminish absorption of the radioactive iodine by the thyroid. This can help in diminishing the effects on the thyroid but does not protect against dangerously high levels of radiation. Also, taking large doses of potassium iodide over a period of time will alter physiology and can be harmful in itself. Taking the potassium iodide does nothing regarding other isotopes released such as cesium-137. It is certainly appropriate if you have been exposed to a high dose of radioactive iodine. Cesium is absorbed by all the tissues of the body and remains in the organs and tissues and environment much longer than the radioactive iodine. So far, as far as we know, only a small amount of cesium has been released from the Japanese reactors. Much of the decontamination procedures simply involve soap and water and washing the radioactive material of the clothes and skin of a person who has been exposed.
So at this point, there isn’t much that needs to be done by folks living here in Florida. We have our own nuclear power plants (the closest one at Crystal River). Your increased risk from this nuclear plant is minimal so long as everything is working the way it is supposed to. For someone living within 50 miles of the plant for a year they will receive 0.09 micro-sieverts of exposure. The current EPA limit for radiation exposure for the general public is 1 milli-sievert (or 1000 micro-sieverts).
Dana Ullman wrote a good post regarding the use of homeopathy for radiation poisoning. Rather than try and synopse it, I will provide a link to his paper. He also points out that fear is never healthy for us and undo alarm serves no one. Being prepared for potential disasters however is just reasonable, and can help to ratchet down the fear and anxiety which only serve to steal our health. His paper is found at:
Those of you who already use homeopathy in your healthcare understand the power and safety of this approach. If it’s not your cup of tea, I understand! The best thing you can do is to be aware of what is happening and changing in the world around us and to work to optimize our health so we start from a resilient, vital position regardless of what stress we encounter. While upper cervical adjustments don’t diminish a dose of radiation in our bodies, they do improve our resilience, our vitality and help us to clear toxins every day.
I hope this paper has helped you to understand the risks and dangers of radiation. I hope it has also relieved some of your fears and anxiety over the current situation in Japan. We have a myriad of things to worry about these days. Stay informed, eat well, get enough sleep, stay in adjustment, monitor your stress level and make meaningful changes when you need to. These can be, in these crazy days, complicated things to accomplish but your life is worth it. In the meantime, we are here if you need us!
Michael Thomas, D.C.