Thursday, March 31, 2011

"C" is for Contamination

NOTE: This post reflects my personal views and opinions.  It does not represent the views of my employer (NRC) or any organization with which I am associated.  Furthermore, I am not an expert on nuclear reactors.   I have a degree in nuclear sciences, and my full-time job involves writing policy to protect public health and safety.

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan on March 11, it wasn't the missing persons or death tolls that made headline news shortly after--it was the status of the nuclear power plants.  After several days I could no longer tolerate watching the news, reading Drudge, or even looking at posts on Facebook regarding the events in Japan.  The sensationalism from the media and overreaction by the general public was too much for me to handle.  To say the stories reported by CNN, Fox News, and many, many others were absurd is an understatement.  I'm not saying the nuclear situation in Japan isn't serious and doesn't require attention, but the media has taken the nuclear scare to a whole new level.  By the way, the purpose of this post isn't to discuss the status of the reactors in Japan or the response in the U.S., so if you'd like to read about these things, I suggest the following sites:

International Atomic Energy Agency Alert Log
U.S. Government website
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission website

What I would like to address is the most recent nuclear scare with "radioactive milk" in Washington and California.  If you haven't heard about this yet, here's the first article that came up from a Google search: Radiation ‘Far Below’ Risk Levels Found in U.S. Milk Samples.  A friend posted a witty remark regarding the radioactive milk on Facebook earlier today.  The post wasn't meant to promote fear or spread inaccurate information--it was funny, and I took it as such.

"The fact that we are finding radiation in our milk supply in the states doesn't alarm me--what alarms me is why exactly are we needing to get milk from Japan in the first place."

The responses that followed were not funny and insinuated that acceptable radiation levels, as determined by the EPA, were not, in fact, safe.  Here was the first response:
"It is a little more scary than that. We aren't getting milk from Japan, the radiation has traveled that far. It is in levels 5000 below what the EPA deems safe though, so it shouldn't be too bad......"

My response:
"Every food has a small amount of radioactivity in it. Common radionuclides are potassium, radium, and uranium. So while the iodine found in the milk is unusual, the amounts found do not pose a health risk. If anyone is that concerned about the milk, they should probably stop flying and sleeping next to others too, as these activities also increase your exposure to radiation. The media is doing a poor job putting these types of issues into perspective."
A short time later, a second response appeared from an individual with the initials, D.A., which was fitting IMO:
"What is disturbing to me is that the people that tell us how much radiation we are being exposed to are the same people that determine what "acceptable" levels of radiation are... And there is really not a way of us knowing any different, so we just buy it. Lame."

The insinuation that a level of radiation 5000 times below what the EPA allows is something to worry about is totally uncalled for.  The amount of radioactive iodine found in the milk was reported as 0.8pCi/L.  The fact that we have the ability to detect such low levels of radiation is impressive.  To put that 0.8 number into perspective, a banana has approximately 3,520 pCi/kg of radioactive potassium.  The conversion from pCi/L to pCi/kg is essentially 1/1 for milk, so the banana I had for breakfast this morning was over 4,400 times more radioactive than the milk on the west coast.  Nearly the same numbers apply for carrots and potatoes, which also contain radioactive potassium.  Also, the iodine in the milk will be almost completely decayed away in a few weeks, and the radioactive potassium in bananas, carrots, and potatoes will stick around for billions and billions of years.  Why isn't the media reporting on the insane amounts of radioactive bananas sold in the U.S. every day? And at over 9 months pregnant, if anyone should be concerned about radioactive foods, shouldn't it be me?!

I don't typically do political or religious debates or debates in general, especially not online, but there is plenty of science to back up this milk thing, which just set me over the top.   

Here's the moral of the story:
1) Yes, they detected radioactivity in milk in the U.S.
2) No, you are not at risk of being harmed from the radiation.
3) Don't try to contradict someone and end your argument with "Lame."  You lose all credibility.
4) If you don't want to "buy" what the government is "selling" you, there is plenty of information available to do independent research to make your own decision.
5) Don't believe everything you read or hear in the news.


  1. Very interesting. I was just thinking I needed to do more research this morning. I don't drink too much milk, but I know it is in other foods, so i am so glad to read the facts.

  2. Thanks for the facts. I hadn't even heard anything about radiation in milk (where have I been?) AND I am very impressed with your job...writing policies sound tedious and difficult!


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