Good Question: What’s The Danger Of Radiation In Colorado?
DENVER (CBS4) – There isn’t much to see on the US Environmental Protection Agency website showing radiation levels in Colorado. You can have a look at radiation levels through the site the EPA has set up since the Japan disaster here: http://www.epa.gov/japan2011
I’ve found the site is up and down. As I write this story, it won’t load. The graph showing radiation levels in Denver and other radiation monitoring sites in Colorado (there are three) shows not much has changed since the disaster in Japan.
While the State Health Department reported some evidence of radiation from Japan, levels are still within normal ranges. The EPA is quick to try to show there’s no need to worry. Each page showing radiation level graphs carries the message, “To-date, levels recorded at this monitor have been thousands of times below any conservative level of concern.”
That’s the air. But what about the products we buy? We asked Dr. Jeff King, a professor of nuclear science at Colorado School of Mines. How about the cars we buy, or the DVD player from Japan?
“The consumer products, there’s no worry about that,” King said. “Some of the food products, now they’ve pulled off the market because they have shown elevated levels of cesium and iodine, mainly iodine, which I believe at this point is just stuff that has fallen out of the air onto the leaves.”
Radioactive cesium and iodine are the two most commonly found sources of contamination from nuclear plants because they go airborne most easily. They both have relatively low vaporization temperatures. The more insidious radioactive elements like plutonium and uranium have higher vaporization levels.
So far there’s little indication that they’ve gone airborne in Japan, but Friday brought new worries about radiation at the plant as very high levels were found in water that may have made its way out of the core in reactor three resulting in radioactive burns to the feet of workers who had some of the water get into their boots.
When radioactive elements like iodine and cesium get into the air they drift down because they are heavier. That’s how it can get onto plants and into the food supply with farm animals.
“Right now what you’re seeing is the contamination coming out of the atmosphere and landing on the greens, landing on the surface of the food,” King said this week. “And Japan has said don’t eat it, but even if you do eat it? It’s still ok, which from the levels I’ve seen that still seems to be accurate.”
King believes any radiation that might be on food or other products is easily detected.
“So we’re going to be able to detect stuff way, way, way below where it’s any sort of health concern.”
If levels of radioactive iodine get high enough, uptake can be prevented with potassium iodide – if it’s taken before the radiation is spread in a given area.
“When you ingest radioactive iodine, it binds to the thyroid and so if you take potassium iodide, non-radioactive iodide beforehand, saturate the thyroid, then the body will just excrete radioactive iodine.”
Radioactive iodine has a relatively short half-life.
“Cesium can last a much longer time. In fact there’s still cesium from atomic bomb testing.”
It drifted down from the atmosphere, and then laid over the soil where it was pulled up by plants.
“It turns out that if you eat deer meat we can actually tell people who are hunters and who eat a lot of venison because they actually will show a little more cesium because for some reason deer concentrate cesium.”
There is treatment for severe cesium exposure, but only severe. In fact, it’s a bad idea to take potassium iodine unless it’s certain to be needed. People with thyroid problems or allergic to seafood can have problems. For now, it’s a better idea to wait and see what happens. And so far, there’s not much risk.