By Steven Mihailovich
While scientists anticipate substantial dilution of the radiation in the world’s largest body of water, the potential health effects cut to the heart of the contemporary scientific debate on the biological consequences of low-level radiation.
“(The radiation) is still a small number, whether you multiply it by 10 or by 100, at levels we expect, though,” said Dr. Ken Buesseler, senior scientist with the Center for Marine and Environmental Radiation at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.
“A lot of people are dismissive of it because it’s so low, and that’s not a good thing to do because radiation can kill,” Buesseler said, although adding, “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s at harmful levels because I can measure these very, very small amounts.”
Professor Kai Vetter of UC Berkeley’s Nuclear Engineering Department has been monitoring radiation levels in the air and rainwater around Berkeley as well as in soil, milk, cheeses and animal feed from nearby farms since the onset of the disaster in 2011.
With numerous sources of daily radiation in the natural environment already, Vetter expects the concentration of radiation in the tainted Pacific Ocean waters to be 1,000 to 10,000 times less than the radioactive isotope (Potassium-40) found in kelp or bananas.
“People don’t understand nuclear radiation and the impact,” said Vetter. “Everyone is really scared of it even though it’s part of the world we’re living in. The bottom line is the concentration we expect to see here in the ocean water in California is extremely small. It should not pose any health risk on swimmers, divers, people on the beach.”
Dr. Herbert Abrams of Stanford University’s School of Medicine was a principal in the six-year Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) VII study for the National Research Council released in 2005 and testified before Congress about its conclusions.
Abrams says any additional radiation, even at low doses, comes on top of the radiation people receive from natural background and from the more than 550 million medical and dental radiological exams given annually in the United States.
Dr. Herbert Abrams Stanford University’s School of Medicine, Principal researcher in Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation study
“The underlying premise that has to be considered as you talk about radioactivity, the water and people being exposed to it, is that the effects of radiation are cumulative,” Abrams said. “They add up over time. The question is, what is the turning point? And that’s why the common sense is to avoid radiation as much as you can.”
With the radiation from Fukushima predicted to peak a year after its arrival and to stick around for a year after that, Abrams said the potential dose should not be dismissed as negligible.
“Am I concerned? Yes I am,” said Abrams. “And that’s because I know radiation pretty well. I’ve been training (medical) residents for 60 years and part of that training is a respect for the effects. It shakes up the cell and it goes after the genetic material … The bottom line is that (radiation) is a carcinogenic agent.”