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About Radiation, Nutrients and Food
By Mary Hartley, RD, MPH
The nuclear blasts in Japan have everyone concerned about radiation poisoning, although World Health Organization officials say “health risk is small” for those of us not living near the power plants. Still, we wonder how we may be affected and if there’s something we can to protect ourselves.
In Extreme Contamination
People living within 12 miles of the Fukushima nuclear power plant are at extreme risk of contamination by inhaled or swallowed or radioactive iodine particles. The Japanese government has evacuated 180,000 people from the area. Everyone wears a surgical mask and stays in unventilated rooms. Since radioactive iodine particles are absorbed by the thyroid, thyroid cancer often develops over time. Potassium iodide pills are given to block radiation uptake by the thyroid gland. Potassium iodide is a pharmacological product. The potassium and iodine in our food do not have the same effect.
In Mild Contamination
Further away from the source, radiation exposure depends distance from the plant and on weather conditions, especially wind and rain at the time of the explosion. Bloomberg Businessweek reports, “Radioactive iodine is heavier than air and won’t spread far in mild wind...(but it) has a half-life of eight days, meaning it takes eight days of decay to decrease by half.”
Indirect exposure is a problem too as Dr. David J. Brenner from the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University told the New York Times in a Time.com article. "The way radioactive iodine gets into human beings is an indirect route," he said. "It falls to the ground, cows eat it and make milk with radioactive iodine, and you get it from drinking the milk." Dr. Brenner then said that the epidemic of thyroid cancer around Chernobyl could have been prevented if the government had immediately stopped people from drinking milk. Officials in South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines will be checking food imported from Japan.
The Radiation Spectrum
Radiation is simply described as an outpouring of energy. High-frequency radiation (“ionizing radiation”) comes from the sun, x-rays, nuclear medicine devices, radon gas, and the rays from old nuclear weapon tests. High frequency radiation has enough energy to damage DNA in the cells which often leads to thyroid cancer. The extent of damage is directly related to the dose of radiation.
On the other hand, the American Cancer Society notes that low-frequency radiation has not been shown to cause cancer. Low-frequency radiation comes from power lines, radio waves, microwaves, cell phones, TV and computer screens, and other sources. The topic remains under study.
Antioxidants to the Rescue
To compensate for environmental toxins, including the low levels of radiation we encounter every day, it's vital to eat an abundance of antioxidant nutrients found in plant foods. Antioxidants protect the cells from damage by keeping toxic byproducts in check. Those byproducts, when not destroyed, lead to aging, cancer and other chronic diseases.
The vitamins A, C and E are antioxidants, as is the mineral selenium, and the many phytochemicals, such as beta-carotene in dark green and orange plants, lycopene in red plants, lutein in dark green leafy vegetables, resveratrol in grapes, myricetin in walnuts, and too many more to name. The point is that every vegetable, fruit, legume, kernel, nut, and seed contains antioxidants, and they are helping us in ways we cannot know.
Do you load up on antioxidant foods?