Certainly, everyone now knows about the major earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last week. And certainly, everyone who has been following this great human tragedy is also aware that three nuclear power stations are at risk. After that, however, accurate information is spottier, and speculation is far, far higher. Words such as meltdown and partial meltdown and containment are being bandied about with little understanding of what they actually mean. And far too many people outside of Japan are panicking with little justification for panic…yet.
Let me quickly explain over the next few minutes:
- What we know is happening.
- What might happen in the near future.
- What the potential dangers are.
- What precautions you might want to take -- for yourself and your children.
China syndrome -- not really
Several decades ago, it was hypothesized that in an extreme nuclear reactor accident, the reactor's core could get so hot that it might possibly melt down, burn through the containment barriers beneath it, and then continue to flow downwards through the floor of the containment building -- ultimately melting all the way through the crust of the earth and popping out on the other side in China. Thus, the name: "China syndrome."
In truth, this scenario is likely as fictional as the movie based on the name. Since the surrounding ground beneath the reactor would absorb most of the heat during a meltdown -- transferring the heat ever outward to the surrounding ground. For that reason, it is likely that the uranium core of a nuclear reactor would not melt down into the earth more than about 90-100 feet (about 30 meters), which is a bit short of the 8,000 miles needed to realize the China syndrome. So, the bottom line is that a meltdown by itself would be unlikely to pose a danger to the world at large -- although it would be severely damaging to the area immediately surrounding the reactor for many, many years to come.
Into the atmosphere
For the world at large, the danger comes when containment is broken, not downwards in a China syndrome type event, but rather in an upward direction from an explosion, which then releases substantial amounts of radioactivity high into the atmosphere by some subsequent event. For example, in the case of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, the Number Four RBMK reactor went out of control during a test, which demolished the entire reactor building. It was a subsequent fire that then spewed large amounts of radiation high (a critical point) into the atmosphere. Once in the upper atmosphere, high winds and jet streams can carry the radioactivity all around the world, ultimately dropping radioactivity on everyone. But the reactors at Chernobyl were very, very different from the reactors in Japan. Unlike most reactors used in the developed world (including Japan), the Soviet Union RBMK reactors were built without a containment structure, the concrete and steel dome over the reactor designed to keep radiation inside the plant in the event of such an accident.
The bottom line is that even if there is a meltdown in one of the Japanese reactors, it is unlikely to breach containment in an upward direction. In fact, there has already been an explosion in one of the reactors with no breach of containment. (Understand, containment structures in nuclear reactors are really, really strong. In the United States, for example, they must be strong enough to withstand the impact of a fully loaded passenger airliner without rupture -- for obvious reasons.) And if there is any breach of containment, it is likely to be small in scope and unlikely to reach the upper atmosphere, in which case, damage would be localized, not global.
That said, it is important to recognize that "unlikely" does not mean "impossible." In other words, there is some degree of risk, no matter how small, that substantial amounts of radiation may leak from one or more of the Japanese reactors, make its way into the upper atmosphere, and ultimately drop down on the United States and the rest of the world. The amount of exposure to citizens outside of Japan would ultimately be small; but unfortunately, in the case of some types of radiation, small amounts of exposure can have significant health consequences -- particularly for the vulnerable. The particularly nasty forms of radiation that we're talking about include plutonium, iodine-131 and 134, strontium-90, and cesium-137.
Given exposure to radioactive fallout, you will want to focus on three things:
- Protecting your thyroid, the most vulnerable organ in your body
- Removing as much of the radiation as possible from your body, as quickly as possible
- Protecting your DNA from genetic mutation
Let's now talk about how we do this.
As mentioned above, radioactive iodine-131 is one of the elements likely to be released into the upper atmosphere after a nuclear event. Carried great distances on high speed winds, it can then drop down into the lower atmosphere, where it may be breathed into the lungs. It can also contaminate crops on the ground and get into the body through food and drink. (Fruits and wines are particularly susceptible.) The problem is that your thyroid gland has a tremendous affinity for iodine, radioactive or otherwise. In other words, the thyroid gland quickly absorbs radioactive iodine, where it can injure or even kill the gland. In fact, radioactive iodine is often administered by doctors specifically to kill the thyroid as a treatment in some thyroid diseases such as Grave's disease.
If, on the other hand, you want to protect your thyroid from exposure to radioactive iodine as might be experienced through fallout, taking non-radioactive iodine just before (or immediately after) exposure will block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid gland. It will thus protect this gland from injury. However, it is important to note that it will not prevent radioactive iodine, or any other form of radiation for that matter, from entering your body. It will not repair damage to the thyroid; nor will it remove the radioactive iodine once it has entered your body. Taking non-radioactive iodine before exposure will merely "pre-fill" your thyroid with iodine so that there is no room for the radioactive iodine to be taken up by your thyroid; thus the need to take the non-radioactive iodine before or immediately after exposure. Likewise, if radioactive iodine is not present or imminent, taking prophylactic non-radioactive iodine offers no protection, not to mention some risk from reactions to the high levels of supplemental iodine.
Ideally, the best time to take supplemental iodine is an hour or so before exposure, or immediately upon exposure, for maximum protection. Take it too soon in advance, and it will begin to clear the thyroid before the radioactive iodine enters the body, thus diminishing its effectiveness. (Iodine pretty much clears the thyroid in about 24 hours.) Take it too late, and the radioactive iodine will have already been taken up by the thyroid, in which case there will be little benefit. One thing to keep in mind is that a good liquid form of iodine, such as is available at most health stores will be taken up by your body almost immediately after ingestion, thus allowing you to wait until the last possible second.
Note: you don't have to jump the gun. Public health officials will advise you when you need to take supplemental iodine as protection. (Yes, I understand, they may prevaricate about the events leading up to a nuclear event. But once the event has happened and the radiation has escaped into the atmosphere, it will be impossible to hide. You will be told.) The trick is to make sure you have a supply of iodine on hand when you need it. Public health officials are prepared to provide everyone supplies of potassium iodide after a localized incident in areas surrounding a single nuclear plant, for example. But they certainly do not have enough iodine on hand to cover broad areas of a country to protect from exposure settling down from the upper atmosphere. Unfortunately, if you wait until the last minute, stores are likely to be sold out in a spree of panic buying -- as we are seeing now. Just keep an emergency supply on hand for you and your family, and you'll be fine.
The standard form of iodine used in nuclear power plants to protect workers against radiation exposure in case of a leak is potassium iodide (also called KI). It is a salt of iodine that has the virtue of being stable. It will also be the kind you hear recommended most often on television since newscasters get their marching orders from the medical community and governments. But potassium iodide is not the only form of stable iodine. In fact, all food grade sources (and extracts from those sources) such as kelp are equally stable and may be used instead. You just have to make sure you use enough.
How much iodine should I take?
According to the FDA, the following doses are appropriate to take after internal contamination with (or likely internal contamination with) radioactive iodine:
- Adults up through age 40 should take 130 mg. (Note: this is about 700 times the normal daily recommended dose of 150 mcg. Also note that most iodine supplements sold in health food stores are sold in microgram doses, not the milligrams you need for thryroid blockage.) People over the age of 40 should only take supplemental iodine if they are exposed to a large dose of radiation. Older adults are the least likely to develop thyroid cancer and the most likely to have allergic reactions to the iodine. Obviously, the older you are, the less you should think about taking prophylactic doses of iodine.
- Women who are breastfeeding should take 130 mg. Pregnant women should take only one dose. And, I hate to say this, but nursing mothers should probably stop breastfeeding if they are exposed and use formula if available. If formula is not available, continue breastfeeding.
- Children between the ages of 3 and 18 should take 65 mg. Children who weigh 150 lbs or more should take 130 mg, regardless of their age.
- Infants and toddlers between the ages of 1 month and 3 years (either nursing or non-nursing) should take 32 mg.
- Newborns from birth to 1 month (both nursing and non-nursing) should be given 16 mg. Note: newborns less than 1 month old who receive more than one dose of KI are at particular risk for developing hypothyroidism. If not treated, hypothyroidism can cause brain damage. Infants who receive supplemental iodine should have their thyroid hormone levels checked and monitored by a doctor. Avoid repeat dosing.
Note: The thyroid glands of a fetus and of an infant are most at risk of injury from radioactive iodine. Young children and people with low stores of iodine in their thyroid are also at risk of thyroid injury.
A single dose of KI protects the thyroid gland for 24 hours. A one-time dose at the levels recommended above is usually all that is needed to protect the thyroid gland. In some cases, radioactive iodine might be in the environment for more than 24 hours. If that happens, local emergency management or public health officials may tell you to take one dose of KI every 24 hours for a few days. You should do this only on the advice of emergency management officials, public health officials, or your doctor. Avoid repeat dosing with KI for pregnant and breastfeeding women and newborn infants. For those individuals, evacuation may be the best alternative until levels of radioactive iodine fall.
Taking a higher dose of iodine, or taking iodine more often than recommended, does not offer more protection and can cause severe illness or death.
Also do not take iodine:
- If you are already taking medication with high levels of iodine.
- You are allergic to iodine.
- If you have a thyroid disease that is iodine sensitive such as Grave's disease, do not take supplemental iodine without your doctor's permission and guidance.
And finally, if panic buying has cleaned your local store's shelves of iodine tablets, there is an alternative. Most people probably went to the "iodine" section of their health food store. There's a good chance they didn't check out the herbal extract section. You may find an iodine extract there that might have been ignored because the dosage "seems" low at first glance. I particularly like the Tincture of Iodine with Kelp from Vitality Works. The dosage seems low since it's listed by the drop, but each bottle contains about 195 mg of iodine, making it easy to divide as necessary to get the appropriate dose. Uptake by the body is really quick. In most cases, two-thirds of a bottle will provide 130 mg. That means 2-3 bottles will cover most families.
Is there anything else you should do?
Iodine only protects the thyroid, and only protects against radioactive iodine (iodine-131 and iodine-134). It doesn't offer any protection against plutonium, cesium-137, and strontium-90, which are also likely to be present. It doesn't clear radioactive matter from your body. It doesn't protect against damage to your genetic material. If worst comes to worst, then I recommend a three-pronged approach.
- Use supplemental prophylactic iodine as described above.
- Use a good colon detox formula that contains substantial amounts of apple pectin and montmorillonite clay. As I've said for years, apple pectin actually draws radioactive waste from your body and passes it out through your colon. It's one of the reasons I include it in my Colon Detox formula -- to remove everyday contamination. This is not wishful alternative health thinking. Apple pectin was used in the aftermath of Chernobyl to reduce the load of radioactive cesium in children. Montmorillonite clay also has a strong affinity for radioactive matter.
- Use a supplement such as a good antioxidant formula or blood cleansing formula that contains chaparral extract. The primary biochemical in chaparral, NDGA (nordihydroguaiaretic acid), has been shown to protect the body against genetic damage caused by exposure to radioactivity.
- (Addendum -- added 3/17) Keep in mind that plutonium, cesium, and strontium are all metals and so, to some degree, can be chelated from the body. Look for a heavy metal detox formula that contains both chlorella and cilantro.
- We do not have an emergency situation yet.
- You don't want to take prophylactic iodine prematurely since it clears out of the thyroid in 24 hours.
- Overdosing on iodine is a distinct possibility if you get carried away. Don't get carried away.
The bottom line is that there is no need for panic. Outside of Japan, nothing has happened yet. Chill out. The odds of anything serious happening outside of Japan are very, very low. Your best bet is to make sure you have some iodine locked away for some future emergency. For further information, check out the related topic: Radiation Therapy, What Comes After?
For more information about radiation and Japan's nuclear disaster, continue on and read Jon's newsletter titled Radioactive Fallout Update!