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Radiation: Don't Worry?

Most of us parents were young during the Chernobyl accident, and have vivid memories of our first exposure to the story of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I can still see, in my memory, terrible black-and-white photos of the devastation in Hiroshima. It was so inhuman; there was so much humanity. Exposed, its surface melted away. And the concept of the invisible threat, the sickness that eats away at you from inside, insidiously: how can it not stay with a girl?

Now we're faced with the crisis that will be our own children's Chernobyl, perhaps: the earthquake and tsunami that devastated so much of northern Japan, and the developing crisis as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant deteriorates. I took my boys to Seaside yesterday with my parents; Truman was so terrified of the idea of a tsunami that he kept going back to Grandpa's truck (there's a story there about the policemen who decided I was a very bad parent because I was spending more time calming everyone's fears than making sure I had eyes on all three boys -- a story for another day that I'm sure I'll tell soon). Everett got scientific and figured out how he could estimate the power of the waves through scientific observation, calming his own fears of one of those waves going Japanese on him.

The short answer to this crisis coming to Oregon shores, as I've learned after lots of research into Walletpop stories on radiation danger and sushi, is not to worry. About this, anyway; any radiation that gets here is at least a million times below toxic levels. Japan exports almost none of its fish, and whatever it would export wouldn't be any more dangerous than a mercury-laden river fish. (We in Oregon actually export a ton of fish and other products to Japan; it's an interesting story, too.)

There's plenty more to worry about. I'm freaking out on a near-daily basis about pesticides and the dangers of exhaust; I'm pretty sure it's part of the reason I struggle so with my boys. Other people are really concerned about radon in their homes; evidently, it's potentially a far, far worse source of radiation than any nuclear plant -- although you can have your radon levels tested and there's a fix. Other friends are having some big worries about lead contamination -- in the paint, in house keys, in the soil, in old furniture you hadn't suspected, in lots of jewelry little kids might get their mouths on (even though it's not meant for kids -- funny how that works). A bunch of us are very concerned about BPA and other plastic-based endocrine disruptors.

And another thing. I got an email which led me to this post I wrote forever and a day ago about radiation exposure of parents and how it affects the yet-to-be-born offspring. I didn't do a lot of research at the time and didn't follow up beyond the post. But I still haven't dismissed it. The mama who found my post wrote,

My dad had polio as a small child and was treated in an iron lung chamber. My aunts recall the doctors believing the radiation exposure is what caused his numerous bouts of cancer. My dad passed away at 40 after battling cancer most of his life.

All this attention on radiation has me wondering if I've been exposed, and what that potential danger could be. And, of course, if I could have passed anything along to my children.

I'd love to talk with someone locally about this. I don't even know where to start or what kind of doctor to call to get checked.

Do any of you have experience with this sort of thing? If you have ideas for how this mama can get tested for the markers of inherited radiation -- if that could be a problem -- please chime in! And tell us what's keeping you up at night with this disaster; I can't stop thinking about my parents' house, that would surely fall in an earthquake and slide into the Nehalem River; wouldn't my 1912 house crumble, too? There's just so much to worry about, you hardly know where to start.


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No ideas for that mama, sorry.

Sympathy for you, though: On the bad days, I can hardly figure out what to worry about first (lead/plastic/radon/air quality/pesticides/violence/end-of-empire cultural degradation/water quality/1911 house in earthquake/etcetcetcetc), so I end up a frantic, cross, going-in-circles, worrying mess. Who takes it out on everyone, incl myself.

On the good days, I breathe and think: right this second on right this day, can I really do anything about this? Truly? Is there actually I way I can protect my children (and their bodies, livers, immune systems, genetic material, minds...) from threat #578? Usually, no. I'm discovering the peace in not allowing every moment to be vigilant/worry-filled. We've already made enough choices in how we structure our lives that I can backburner some concerns for an hour or day; and instead try to be in the moment w/my children, and remain sane. Later, once they're in bed, we troll the Internet and resume the worryworryworry/anger/fear.

You can't "get checked" to see the cumulative amount of radiation you've been exposed to (i.e. over a lifetime) and even if you could it still wouldn't tell you anything conclusive other than a relative risk factor. The harm you may or may not have been exposed to via radiation (via the ionization of molecules) is going to depend on the biological effects of the ionization on cells (most important risk wise is effects on chromosomes at the cellular level). Cells can repair a lot of low level radiation damage and do on a regular basis. Here are some explanations:

Here is a great, albeit not totally 100 percent accurate due to generalization, radiation dose chart info-graphic that Randall Munroe of XKCD fame has put together that shows the sources of radiation that we may or may not be exposed to on a daily basis and visually depicts where the risks rank. via GeekDad

Lastly, thanks to Hanford, we in the PNW live in perhaps the most consistently monitored location with regard to airborne radiation. If concerning levels were arriving from Japan we would know it.

I am a pretty healthy, 33 year old non-smoking, non-drinking, a lot-of-organic eating mama of a 3 year old and a 1.5 year old...and in September I was diagnosed with Lymphoma. I had 5 weeks of daily radiation treatment. It was the most surreal thing in the world...laying in a room having radiation being directly beamed at your head/neck. Knowing that it would most likely cure this cancer but would open me up to different cancers in the future. Luckily, I'm healthy now, and just have to go in for checkups for life.
But the main thing I took away from this...I had no risk factors for getting cancer in the first place, but I got it. A really rare form, too. And I have only the cold statistical numbers of how unlikely I am to get it in the future, but no 100% guarantee. But the truth is, none of us do. We don't know the 'thing that will get us', whether it be lead, or radon, or radiation, or a wrong way driver on the interstate.
We really do just have to focus on the now, avoiding the risks we actually can, loving our kids with all our might and LIVING life.

I grew up 4 miles as the crow flies from Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, NY. It is older, sits on a fault line, and, probably most importantly, is about 40 miles directly north of Manhattan. Creepy. My parents still live there. I've learned a lot over the years about nuclear engineering and design, and as a public health professional, I can be candid and tell you that any accident occurring in Japan is of near-zero actual health risk to people in America. Radioactive particles may be detectable, but that does not in and of itself constitute a health risk.

More saliently, living in a wood-framed pre-World War home is one of the safer places you can be if the big earthquake hits. Our home, like many, is not actually attached to the foundation, so in the "big one", our home would jump off the foundation and have to be razed. (That's why, if you don't have your old house "tied down" to the foundation, you can't get earthquake insurance.) However, the structural integrity would likely remain largely intact--large, old-growth wooden timbers and framing (2x4s back then were actually 2"x4"--nowadays, they are about 1 1/2" x 3 1/2"), good quality construction. Very different from an older concrete or brick home, or a more modern wood-framed home. So take some solace in that.

Here is a link to a factsheet on potential health risks in the us from the Japanese nuclear crisis. http://www.psr.org/resources/health-risks-releases-radioactivity-fukushima-daiichi-nuclear-reactors.html

I have to admit that I get a little angry every time I hear/read/watch something that has anything to do with the concern over radiation reaching the west coast of the United States. The death toll in Japan is estimated at over 10 thousand now, with over 17 thousand still missing and unlike here, the radiation levels there are actually dangerous. This is not about us. This is about Japan.

but it IS about us. All of us in this world are in this life together. It is possible to be concerned for our own well-being as well as those in japan. What has happened in japan was terrible. But japan doesn't have a monopoly on tragedy/fear/worry. It's okay to worry about radiation reaching the west coast. How does NOT worrying about radiation reaching us make anything better in japan?

We've finally created earthquake kits in our household (food, water, first aid supplies, etc.-check out the Red Cross for a start) - one for the house and one for the shed out back in case one of the two falls down. Focusing fear of what we can't control into something we can do is one way to cope.

When my father was a boy in Massachusetts, he lived in fear of a volcano coming up under his house. I have a fear of tornados. Neither thing is in our control, and most likely will never happen. There are a lot of things we are in control of, but I have to tell you, even as a social worker in the Portland community, I don't worry about them, daily, or even weekly, usually not even monthly. My daughter never even had a water bottle to drink from until she was in Kindergarten and needed a drink at school. It exhausts me to read about the many moms that spend so much time worrying about if their vegetables are organic enough. I think these things are important, but I am much more concerned about my day to day interactions with my daughter, and raising her to be a good and caring person, as well as being healthy and making smart choices.

A data-driven document on wooden homes in earthquakes. http://timber.ce.wsu.edu/Resources/papers/4-3-2.pdf

An older wooden home may not be salvageable afterwards, but it likely will not collapse on you.

I must admit I am VERY concerned about radiation from cell phone towers, seemingly destined at some point to go up in certain neighborhoods. Anyone else?

See respectpdx.org .

All of these are valid concerns: chemicals from plastics (BPA not being any worse or better than many others - its just one that has been identified and has public awareness), radon, heavy metals from exhaust, but there's only so much we can do to protect ourselves and our children. I have always balanced my worry/protectiveness with a strong desire to let my child enjoy his life, and for me to enjoy my life. So we try to be safe, but not sheltered.

As to the "inherited radiation" question, I can give a non-expert answer, as I studied this for three years before deciding not to get my PhD and to follow another career. The sex cells (eggs and sperm) are very well protected from radiation and chemical mutation, so a parent's childhood experiences with toxins probably would not have much effect on their future children. Of course, exposure in the womb is a completely different thing and CAN affect the future child. And there's always exceptions, cause its biology, and one thing I got very clear about biology is that there are always outliers that just don't follow the "rules."

I don't agree with the comment that it isn't about us. It is about them, but also about us. If radiation levels reach us and start effecting our health it suddenly becomes about us. We will all suffer.

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