Is There Anything We Can Do to Reduce Radiation Risks?
Doctors in Hawaii and the West Coast of North American are being bombarded with questions about how to protect ourselves from radiation from Fukushima … especially since it is difficult to assess the amount of radiation we will be exposed to, and exposure may continue for some time.
This essay provides an introduction to some of the main concepts on reducing the risk from radiation. It is broken into the following sections:
I. Step 1: Reduce Exposure
II. Certain Minerals Can Reduce Absorption of Harmful Radiation
III. Other Vitamins and Minerals Which Protect Against Radiation Damage
IV. Antioxidants: Helpful Weapons Against Radiation Damage
V. Other Things Which Offer Some Radiation Protection
VI. What To Do If Exposed to Extremely High Doses of Radiation
Step 1: Reduce Exposure
Initially, we should reduce our exposure to radiation in the first place. For example, if you live in an area receiving any radiation exposure, you should take off your shoes and leave them by the door (Asian style) and use a Hepa vacuum to get rid of excess dust inside your house.
We should also be moderate with our consumption of fish caught off the Japanese, Hawaiian or West coast of the U.S. and Canada, as radiation can bioaccumulate in fish. See this, this, and this … and the video below.
Certain Minerals Can Reduce Absorption of Harmful Radiation
It is well-known that potassium iodide works to protect against damage from radioactive iodine by saturating our body (the thyroid gland, specifically) with harmless iodine, so that our bodies are unable to absorb radioactive iodine from nuclear accidents.
For example, the World Health Organization notes:
When taken at the appropriate dosage and within the correct time interval around exposure to radioactive iodine, KI [i.e. potassium iodide] saturates the thyroid gland with stable (non-radioactive) iodine. As a result, radioactive iodine will not be taken up and stored by the thyroid gland.
KI only protects against one particular radioactive element, radioactive iodine, which has a half life of only 8.02 days. That means that the iodine loses half of its radioactivity within 8 days. For example, after the initial Fukushima melt-down, radioactive iodine was found in California kelp. But the radioactive iodine quickly dissipated. *
The longer-term threat lies elsewhere. As the New York Times noted – in addition to iodine-131 – the big danger is cesium:
Over the long term, the big threat to human health is cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years.
At that rate of disintegration, John Emsley wrote in “Nature’s Building Blocks” (Oxford, 2001), “it takes over 200 years to reduce it to 1 percent of its former level.”
It is cesium-137 that still contaminates much of the land in Ukraine around the Chernobyl reactor.
Cesium-137 mixes easily with water and is chemically similar to potassium. It thus mimics how potassium gets metabolized in the body and can enter through many foods, including milk.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that … once dispersed in the environment … cesium-137 “is impossible to avoid.”
Fortunately – while little-known in the medical community – other harmless minerals can help “saturate” our bodies so as to minimize the uptake of other harmful types of radiation.
The U.S. Department of Defense’s Army Medical Department Center and School explained in its book Medical Consequences of Radiological and Nuclear Weapons (Chapter 4):
One of the keys to a successful treatment outcome is to reduce or eliminate the uptake of internalized radionuclides before they can reach the critical organ.
The terms “blocking” or “diluting” agent can, in most cases, be used interchangeably. These compounds reduce the uptake of a radionuclide by saturating binding sites with a stable, nonradioactive element, thereby diluting the deleterious effect of the radioisotope. For example, potassium iodide is the FDA-recommended treatment to prevent radioactive iodine from being sequestered in the thyroid…. Nonradioactive strontium compounds may also be used to block the uptake of radioactive strontium. In addition, elements with chemical properties similar to the internalized radio-nuclide are often used as blocking agents. For example, calcium, and to a lesser extent phosphorus, can be used to block uptake of radioactive strontium.
As does the book published in 2005 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, called Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response:
After the U.S. military conducted above-ground nuclear tests on Bikini Island, scientists found that adding potassium to the soil reduced the uptake of radioactive cesium by the plants:
The first of a series of long-term field experiments was established on Bikini Island during the late 1980s to evaluate potential remediation techniques to reduce the uptake of cesium-137 into plants (Robison and Stone, 1998). Based on these experiments, the most effective and practical method for reducing the uptake of cesium-137 into food crop products was to treat agricultural areas with potassium fertilizer (KCl).
John Harte – Professor at the University of California at Berkeley in Energy and Resources and Ecosystem Sciences, a PhD physicist who previously taught physics at Yale, a recipient of the Pew Scholars Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, the Leo Szilard prize from the American Physical Society, and who has served on six National Academy of Sciences Committees and authored over 170 scientific publications, including six books – notes:
Marine fish are usually about 100 times lower in cesium-137 than are freshwater fish because potassium, which is more abundant in seawater, blocks uptake of cesium by marine organisms.
The same is true in mammals. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes:
Cesium is a close chemical analogue of potassium. Cesium has been shown to compete with potassium for transport through potassium channels and can also substitute for potassium in activation of the sodium pump and subsequent transport into the cell.
Elimination rates of cesium may be altered by potassium intake. Following the intraperitoneal injection of 137 Cs in rats, a basal diet supplemented with 8–11% potassium resulted in cesium clearance of 60 days compared to about 120 days for rats receiving the unsupplemented basal diet that contained 1% potassium
(Richmond and Furchner 1961). After 20 days on the diets, rats receiving supplemental potassium had body burdens of 137 Cs that were one-half those of the rats not receiving supplemental potassium. This finding shows that supplemental potassium reduces the uptake and increases the elimination of ingested 137 Cs.
Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt – a medical doctor with a masters degree in public health, on the Faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, editor of the best-seller Food and Nutrients in Disease Management – says that the same is true for humans:
Here are the recommended daily allowances (RDA) for various minerals (data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture):
Other Vitamins and Minerals Which Protect Against Radiation Damage
Numerous studies show that Vitamin C helps to protect the body against radiation.
Radiological health expert Daniel Hayes, Ph.D., of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene suggests that a form of vitamin D could be one of our body’s main protections against damage from low levels of radiation. Writing in the International Journal of Low Radiation, Hayes explains that calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D, may protect us from background radiation and could be used as a safe protective agent before or after a low-level nuclear incident.
“Vitamin D by its preventive/ameliorating actions should be given serious consideration as a protective agent against sublethal radiation injury, and in particular that induced by low-level radiation,” concludes Hayes.
It takes a couple of weeks or months to build up our body’s levels of Vitamin D. You cannot just pop a bunch of pills and raise your Vitamin D level. You should never take more than the recommended dose, and – even if you did – it wouldn’t raise your vitamin D level all at once. As such, we should start now …
Here are the RDAs for vitamins (data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture):
Selenium also helps protect our bodies from radiation. See this, this and this. Brazil nuts are the best food source of selenium. (And – given that the New England Journal of Medicine says that eating nuts helps us live longer – eating a handful of mixed raw nuts every day makes some sense.)
Antioxidants: Helpful Weapons Against Radiation Damage
It may sound strange, but it is well-documented that antioxidants help to protect against damage from radiation. Specifically, one of the main ways in which low-level ionizing radiation damages our bodies is by the creation of free radicals. (This 2-minute BBC videoshows how damaging free radicals can be to your health.)
For example, Columbia University explains the damaging effects of low-level radiation through free radical creation:
Indeed, creation of free radicals is virtually the definition of ionizing radiation. Wikipedia notes:
Ionizing … radiation is radiation composed of particles that individually carry enough kinetic energy to liberate an electron from an atom or molecule, ionizing it. Ionizing radiation is generated through nuclear reactions ….
A free radical is simply an atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell.
Ionization of molecules can lead to radiolysis, (breaking chemical bonds,) and formation of highly reactive free radicals. These free radicals may then react chemically with neighbouring materials even after the original radiation has stopped. (e.g. ozone cracking of polymers by ozone formed by ionization of air). Ionizing radiation can disrupt crystal lattices in metals, causing them to become amorphous, with consequent swelling, material creep, and embrittlement. Ionizing radiation can also accelerate existing chemical reactions such as polymerization and corrosion, by contributing to the activation energy required for the reaction. Optical materials darken under the effect of ionizing radiation.
An antioxidant – on the other hand – is a molecule stable enough to donate an electron to a rampaging free radical and neutralize it … reducing its capacity to damage our body. In other words, antioxidants reduce the ability of radiation to injure us through their free radical scavenging ability.
That’s why doctors recommend eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables to help protect against radiation (via CBS’ show The Doctors):
Fresh fruits and vegetables are vital to include in your diet. And some – like blueberries – are quite high in antioxidants. But there are actually more concentrated sources of antioxidants which are inexpensive and easy to obtain.
Glutathione – the “master antioxidant”, which is in every cell of your body, and which helps you utilize all the other antioxidants which you ingest – is probably the most important one to focus on.
Numerous studies have shown that glutathione can help protect cells against radiation damage, including studies published in the following journals:
Dr. Jimmy Gutman – a practicing physician, former Undergraduate Director and Residency Training Director of Emergency Medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, who has served on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians – claims:
Raising glutathione levels protects cells from damage from the most dangerous of free radicals, the hydroxyl-radical, is released when ionizing radiation hits us.
Here’s how to boost your glutathione levels.
One source argues:
During exposure to low-level doses (LLD) of ionizing radiation (IR), the most of harmful effects are produced indirectly, through radiolysis of water and formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). The antioxidant enzymes – superoxide dismutase (SOD): manganese SOD (MnSOD) and copper-zinc SOD (CuZnSOD), as well as glutathione (GSH), are the most important intracellular antioxidants in the metabolism of ROS.
Finally, thinking about radiation may be stressful. But studies show that deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi and other forms of relaxation raise antioxidants and decrease free radicals. Some of the studies can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
Other Things Which Offer Some Radiation Protection
Many other foods, herbs and supplements have shown some efficacy in helping to protect against radiation poisoning. This is not intended as a shopping list … there are just too many things to buy, and some combining some herbs with others may not be ideal. Rather, this is meant as a resource to keep handy, so that – if you have access to some of these items – you know what some of your options are.
Many inexpensive foods have shown protective properties against radiation, including:
- Beta-carotene rich foods like carrots
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, collard greens and bok choy
- Curcurim (and see this) – the active ingredient in turmeric which, in turn, is in yellow curry (available in Indian and Thai dishes)
- Garlic (one Indian tribe living in the desert of Nevada used to eat bulbs of raw garlic to help protect against radiation from the above-ground nuclear tests)
- Miso (when it has been “long-fermented”, instead of fermented for a shorter time)
- Many types of seaweed (see this, this, this and this; but buy seaweed grown outside of Japan and other polluted waters)
Many herbs and supplements available at health food stores or drugstores have shown some protective properties against radiation, including:
- Aloe arborescens (commonly known as “Krantz Aloe”, a lesser-known member of the aloe family)
- American Ginseng (indeed, one study apparently found American Ginseng helped prevent damage from cesium-137)
- Beta-glucan (a yeast derivative)
- Holy basil (and see this; also called tulasi; this is the top herb in traditional Ayurvedic – i.e. Indian – medicine)
- Probiotics such as Lactobacillus
- Sesamol (an extract from sesame seeds)
- Spirulina, a blue-green algae available at health food stores
- Tinospora cordifolia (known as “guduchi”)
- Tomato extract (Lycopersicon)
- Zeolite (and see this. It’s a type of volcanic ash used to absorb radioactive cesium at Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and the Hanford nuclear facility)
(Consult your qualified healthcare provider before taking any herbs, as they can have side effects. Many of the herbs and supplements work by increasing antioxidants in your body, as discussed above.)
And there is some evidence that brightly-colored produce may have some protective properties.
What To Do If Exposed to Extremely High Doses of Radiation
Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen explains how to reduce exposure in case of a worst case scenario:
[In a worst case scenario, for example, if the fuel pool at Fukushima reactor 4 were to topple over], I would close my windows, turn the air conditioner on, replace the filters frequently, damp mop, put a HEPA filter in the house and try to avoid as much of the hot particles as possible. You are not going to walk out with a Geiger counter and be in a plume that is going to tell you the meter. The issue will be on the West Coast, hot particles. And the solution there is HEPA filters and avoiding them.
Radiative iodine is concentrated in milk. Therefore, when high doses of radioiodine are being released into the air, we might want to avoid milk altogether for a couple of weeks or so. (Radioactive iodine has a half-life of only 8 days. So avoiding local milk for a couple of weeks should help keep you safe.)
In addition, rain is one of the primary ways that radiation is spread outside of the vicinity of the nuclear accident. As a parent who doesn’t want to tell my kids they can’t play in the rain, none of this is fun to talk about … but during periods of extremely high airborne radiation releases, people might want to keep their kids out of heavy rain.
Evacuation is the most drastic step to take to protect yourself. World renowned physicist Michio Kaku told his Japanese family and friends years ago that they should leave if they can. Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen and physician Helen Caldicott have both said that people should evacuate the Northern Hemisphere if one of the Fukushima fuel pools collapses. Gundersen said:
Move south of the equator if that ever happened, I think that’s probably the lesson there.
The Fukushima pools have not collapsed at this point, and so we’re not suggesting that people leave Hawaii or the West Coast. Indeed, the entire focus of this essay is minimizing risks in our own homes.
Even if you’re hit with large doses of radiation, there are compounds you can take to help protect yourself …
Potassium iodide protects against damage from radioactive iodine, but should only be taken if one is directly exposed to high levels of radioactive iodine, and you should never exceed the recommended dosage.
Other specific substances have been proven to protect against poisoning from exposure to other specific types of radiation:
- Prussian blue for cesium
- DTPA for plutonium, americium and curium
- Sodium bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda) for uranium
These are not candy, and can have their own side effects. So only take them – under guidance from your physician – if you are exposed to high levels of radiation.
For a more complete discussion of commonly-accepted scientific consensus on different prevention and treatment options, please review the Army’s Medical Consequences of Radiological and Nuclear Weapons and the The American Association of Physicists In Medicine’s Medical Management of Radionuclide Internal Contamination.
* As noted above, you should not take potassium iodide supplements unless you are exposed to high doses of radioactive iodine, because it can damage some people’s health. For chronic low-dose exposure, a daily, baseline level of mineral iodine is much healthier. Potassium iodide is found in most common table salt. However, levels are not uniform, and a lot of “iodized” salt has less than advertised. Here is a list of some iodine-rich foods. And see this.
Disclaimer: The material contained in this essay is for general informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. You should consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before making any decisions about whether or not to take any of the foods, herbs, supplements, substances or actions mentioned herein.