Sponsored By
Steve Myers

March 24, 2011

11 Min Read
Radiating Fear

Japans recent disasters certainly have captured the worlds attention, but the problems and potential dangers at several of the countrys nuclear facilities, specifically the Fukushima plant, have triggered some fear and panic in parts of the world. Understandably, images of Chernobyl flit through our minds when we hear of nuclear reactor troubles.  However, the rush to find products, including dietary supplements and other natural products, that can help protect against radiation can result in many misinformed people and many unnecessary purchases/ingestions.

Nuclear Radiation

When confronting this radiation issue, one needs to understand how radiation works. Atoms of most elements are by-and-large stable, meaning they dont change chemical properties over time if left alone. Some elements have forms, or isotopes, that are unstable, or radioactive. These isotopes decay over time. While some elements have only one or two radioactive isotopes, many elements (uranium, radon, radium, etc.) have only radioactive isotopes. When they decay, these isotopes throw off one of several types of particles (alpha, gamma, beta, neutron) and spontaneously become another element. The decay process is measured by half-life, the amount of time it takes for half of the atoms to decay.

Nuclear reactors incorporate spontaneous fission, where the radioactive atom splits, resulting in nuclear radiation. When this radiation encounters atoms from living organisms, it can knock off an electron from the atoms and cause mutations and even cell death. Emitted alpha particles cant penetrate the body, while beta particles are only dangerous if eaten or inhaled. Gamma rays, as in X-ray machine radiation, can penetrate the body but are inhibited by lead (which is why you wear the lead vest during X-rays). Neutrons, however, are the most dangerous, as they can penetrate deeply and are only repelled by thick concrete (as in buildings) or by liquids.

Stopping Radiation Alpha particles (protons and neutrons) can be stopped by skin or a sheet of paper. Beta particles (electrons) can be stopped by a quarter-inch-thick piece of aluminum or acrylic. Gamma particles (high-energy photons) can be stopped by thick lead membranes.For a more detailed, but laymans, description of how nuclear radiation works, check out How Stuff Works, or for a highly detailed academic explanation, visit the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Japan Nuclear Radiation Situation

It is easy and probably natural to wince or even panic a little when you hear about radiation leaks and levels at Fukushima and its surrounding area, but it is important to understand just what was leaked and how much. Unfortunately, this information has been elusive, as most information is coming from the Japanese government (which is apparently known as forthcoming in normal times). Basically, spent fuel (irradiated) from the reactor has to be stored in pools for cooling for about one to three years. Following the quake and tsunami, the explosions at the plant left the cooling system for this pool in shambles. The race to cool the pool was the focus of much of this crisis, as a failure to keep the irradiated, spent fuel cool would result in overheating, meltdown and possible release of large amounts of radioactive materials. However, recent reports have noted the leaked radiation from the plant was dominated by iodine-131. This isotope has a half-life of around eight days, and is short-lived. This also indicates the leaks from the plant werent likely from this spent fuel, as this isotope isnt usually present in the spent fuel.

Every one to two years, the reactor fuel (which is not irradiated when it goes in, but becomes so as a consequence of the reactions) must be replaced. It is likely the iodine-131 came from this reactor supply.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, a wide area around the Fukishima plant is experiencing levels of radiation that are much higher than normal background radiationthe Earths air is normally filled with some level of radiation that occurs naturallybut given the dominance of iodine-131 isotope in this leak, the decay should be fairly rapid.

Everyday Radiation

Each person around the world receives an average of 240 to 300 millirem per year of radiation from environment (milehigh Denver averages about 400 millirems/year). For contrast, astronauts average a maximum 25,000 millirems/year, and the federal occupational limit for adults is 5,000 millirems/year. Here are some interesting sources of radiation and the levels they emit:

Granite natural uranium content decays into radon gas. The largest contributor to average radiation dose. However, the amount of uranium in granite is low (10 to 20 parts per million), so this radiation is also very low.

Sleeping next to your spouse small amounts of bodily potassium-40 deliver beta radiation of about 2 millirem, more than those near Three Mile Island received in the partial meltdown in 1979.

Flying at an altitude of 30,000-plus feet, the atmospheric protection from radiation from sun and space is thinner; pilots can receive as much as 250 millirem of radiation annually.

Smoke detectors contain americium-241, which emits both alpha and gamma radiation, but only about 0.01 millirems worth.

Watching TV 2 millirems of annual exposure.

Note: a millirem is a unit of absorbed radiation dose. One millirem equals a 1-in-8 million risk of dying from cancer, which is equivalent to crossing the street three time or taking three puffs of a cigarette.

Information from: NuclearFissionary.com, where you can find more examples of everyday radiation; MIT News, and the EPA. See also: EPA Sources of Radiation Exposure

One of the most well-known dangers of radioactive iodine is its potential effects in the thyroid, which takes in iodine for use in making thyroid hormones. However, the thyroid doesnt know the difference between stable and radioactive iodine, so it is possible the gland takes up radioactive iodine and suffers damage; it would also increase the risk of developing cancer in the near or even distant future.

The prevailing method of protection against this is to fill the thyroid with stable iodine in the form of potassium iodine pills. Much like how probiotics compete with bad bacteria in the gut, stable iodine competes with radioactive iodine in thyroid, so filling the thyroid up before radioactive exposure means less, if any, radioactive iodine absorbs into the thyroid. The Japanese government has distributed potassium iodine pills to those people in the danger zones near Fukishima.

Along the west coast of the United States, as well as even inland, potassium iodine pills are in short supply due to sharply increased demand by people in those areas. This has contributed to increased searches for natural products that can also protect against radiation. The main issue here is the U.S. government and most radiation scientists have stated the risk of any significant exposure on even the U.S. west coast is very minimal. In fact, the EPA has tested samples from RadNet filters in California and Washington and has publicly stated the levels detected were hundreds of thousands to million of times below levels of concern. Further, monitors in Hawaii have detected only miniscule levels of an isotope that is also consistent with the Japanese nuclear incident. Again, far below any level of concern to humans.

The agency made a point that the normal background radiation levels coming from the environment (rocks, the sun, etc.) are 100,000-times higher than what has been detected coming from Japan. A roundtrip, international flight also subjects you to higher radiation than is coming to our shores from Japan. The levels detected along the Pacific Coast are predictably dominated by iodine-131, with lesser amount of iodine-132, cesium-137 and tellurium-132.

While iodine-131 appears to pose little threat, given its half life and miniscule levels, cesium-137 has a much longer half-life of 30 years and will stick around longer. However, this isotope appears to have been released only in a very small quantity, and is below safety standards/minimum dangerous levels for even the area around the plant. As Per Peterson, chairman of the nuclear engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR, if things continue on this track (low levels released) this isotope, along with the others, will pose no long-term threat.

Radiation Risk

When it comes to radiation crises, it is all about risk and protection. According to all credible reports, the risk for Americans, even on the west coast, is extremely low. When it comes to potassium iodine consumption, a little extra wont hurt you, but there is no need to go overboard. In fact, too much of this nutrient can cause severe health problems and even death. Check out the SupplySide Linkedin forum (may require registration) for interesting discussions on this topic and some insights on why microgram doses in supplements arent enough for true radiation emergencies, yet milligram doses used for such emergencies arent suitable for dietary supplements; also covered is the possible need to take the iodine and iodide forms concurrently, especially in high-dose scenarios.

Additionally, potassium iodine addresses only the potentially acute situation of the thyroid, but radiation can penetrate into other parts of the body, such as bone marrow and the digestive tract; acute radiation sickness requires a more extensive therapy of blood transfusions (for loss of blood cells common in radiation sickness) and antibiotics (for associated high infection risks).

The other issue of note is that, given the short half-life, it is best to reserve potassium iodine supplies for situation when it is needed most. Taking it too far in advance (ideal is 24 hours before exposure) could be worthless for radiation protection.

Now, whether out of desperation in the face of potassium iodine shortages or by an instinctual desire to use natural methods of protection, there has been an uptick in interest and marketing of supplements and natural products for protection against radiation from Japan. There are two major issues apparent with this scenario. One, the radioactive isotopes involved in this incident are limited; just four isotopes, with only one dominating the mix. Unless studies on natural compounds show protection from any of these specific isotopes, there is no evidence of a protective benefit from taking the product. While some natural products can, in a general sense, be protective against radiation and any after effects, claims cannot be made for specific protection from radiation.

FDA has stated, There is no public health event requiring anyone in the U.S. to take KI because of the ongoing situation in Japan. The agency warned Americans to be wary of internet sites and other retail outlets promoting products making false claims to prevent or treat effects of radiation or products that are not FDA-approved. These fraudulent products come in all varieties and could include dietary supplements, food items, or products purporting to be drugs, devices or vaccines. It said to look out for products using claims not approved by FDA for preventing or treating the harmful effects of radiation exposure.

We at Natural Products Insider have found some deceptively marketed products including both potassium iodine and other natural remedies touted for radiation protection. Visit the Beninnger Blog for continuing coverage of such products and the issues with them, both physiologically and legally.

Using false claims is a problem in the natural products industry, especially in several segments such as sports nutrition, weight management and sexual dysfunction. The increased media attention on the disaster in Japan, including the ongoing nuclear crisis, will not be kind to illegal and false claims made for natural products touting prevention or treatment of radiation exposure. Deceptive labeling of potassium iodine amounts can also lead to over-consumption and adverse events that will surely do no good for the industry or DSHEA, which is already embattled.

Even in the case of resveratrol, which has been shown to protect against cell damage and death from radiation exposure, the studies involved only gamma radiationthe iodine-131 dominating the Fukushima leak is primarily a beta- and gamma-emitter, but the cell mutation and death consequences are credited to its beta decay; also, the University of Pittsburgh trial conducted by schools oncologist John Greenberger involved acetylated resveratrol. This reinforces the importance of matching the claim or benefit with the exact substance and scenario studied. This is not to say other forms of resveratrol arent similarly effective or that resveratrol is not effective against other forms of radiation, but the science on this is narrow and focused, at this point.

Rather than flirting with deceptive marketing and/or illegal claims, it might be far better for companies to take advantage of the heightened interest in radiation exposure (which happens daily) and its potential after-effect (cancer, digestive problems, etc.) by educating consumers on radiation basics and how your product(s) can help with specific aspects of the problem (free radical protection, digestive and immune support, etc.).

About the Author(s)

Steve Myers

Senior Editor

Steve Myers is a graduate of the English program at Arizona State University. He first entered the natural products industry and Virgo Publishing in 1997, right out of college, but escaped the searing Arizona heat by relocating to the East Coast. He left Informa Markets in 2022, after a formidable career focused on financial, regulatory and quality control issues, in addition to writing stories ranging research results to manufacturing. In his final years with the company, he spearheaded the editorial direction of Natural Products Insider.

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