Posts Tagged ‘disaster’

Radiation angst… see for yourself

March 23, 2011

Until the recent earthquake in Japan, the resultant tsunami and the looming nuclear situation, I had been working on a post about utilities. Specifically, how it is that people in New Mexico didn’t have natural gas to heat their homes during the coldest days in recent memory. It’s a fascinating story with many maddening twists that people who live in this state really ought to understand. But, it’s been pre-empted by another utility situation: Fukashima Daiishi.

I don’t know about you, but my radiation knowledge is not what it probably should be. I mean, I know my “friends” are time, shielding and distance. Limit exposure time. Shielding material can help protect from additional exposure. Get as far away as possible when it’s safe.  Simple right? Sure… until you factor in an unknown radiation source (how much? how fast? what kinds?) and things like the jet stream, prevailing winds and rain. What did it all mean?

Radiation is not as straighforward as natural gas. some radiation, alpha and beta particles, are actual particles. A piece of paper would stop radiation emitted from an alpha particle. Beta radiation is blocked by the dead layer of skin cells, the outermost layer of your epidermis. So you’re safe…? Maybe… unless an event involves gamma or neutron radiation. Then, save for distance or lead shielding, there’s no defense against it.

So, how do we know?

Mostly, we don’t. The public does have some access to government and private radiation monitoring information [see links below]. But, accuracy varies widely. Government officials are notorious for taking a detector offline to “determine its accuracy” when it registers a reading they consider abnormal. In this situation, with five nuclear reactors about to crap out their cores at the other end of the jet stream, who’s to say what’s abnormal?

At our house, we’ve been monitoring radiation levels almost since the start of the incident using the websites below — and charting the trends. Tonight, on the evening news, we heard the first announcement that radiation from Japan was passing over the United States. It was nice to feel like we were on top of things. It feels nice to know that we know (or think we know) what’s going on.

So far, we’re not overly alarmed about the radiation levels we’re seeing. They’re elevated. Sometimes sharply so. The highest reading to date has been about five times our normal background level of radiation… but even that was only two and a half times the normal background radiation on a sunny summer day in Denver. Even at that level, even at five times our normal level, it wasn’t at a level that anyone considers dangerous. At least, not acutely dangerous.

The thing with radiation… is that sometimes your body is able to repair cellular damage than can be caused by radiation exposure. If the exposure is slight enough and occurs over a long enough period of time, it has virtually ZERO impact on your lifespan, or even on your odds of getting cancer. It’s really high, rapid, all-of-a-sudden, sorts of exposure that get you into deep trouble. When the damage occurs faster than your body can compensate and repair it, you end up with all manner of nastiness. Still, long term radiation exposure is generally no good for you (UV and vitamin D relationship aside). You want to avoid it if you can. That’s why your doctor tells you to wear sunscreen and sunglasses (cataracts are the most common form of radiation damage).

So, in the weeks to come, I’ll try to work up some charts to give you guys some numbers on radiation exposure, what the numbers in the media mean, how radiation is measured and why that should be important to you. And we’ll talk about radiation and preparedness: the duct tape and plastic drill, when and why to stock up of potassium idodide, that kind of thing.

Suffice to say, our advice is not to panic. We’ve been watching this thing unfold for awhile. We’ve seen radon detectors pawned off as radiation detectors… $400 geiger counters selling for thousands… and $20 bottle of potassium iodide tablets selling for hundred of dollars. In every situation like this, there are going to be people who prey on your fears. Being educated on the real risks is your best defense.

Here are the links we use to monitor radiation:

EPA website for radiation monitoring: click the link. In the center of the first paragraph, there is a link labeled RadNet Map View. Click that link. It will take you to a page where it displays the EPA’s permanent and mobile radiation detectors.  http://www.epa.gov/cdx/

Radiation Network: a really level-headed guy who runs a grassroots radiation monitoring network. The monitoring stations are all volunteer efforts. Check it out. http://www.radiationnetwork.com/

Black Cat Systems: online ionizing radiation network. Another private endeavor. Although I think his map is a little cumbersome, he has great information on different type of detectors, why readings vary and tons of other reasons not to panic.  http://www.blackcatsystems.com/RadMap/map.html

So, there you have it… our first two bits on Fukashima and radiation. Obviously, you have homework. You’re going to need to know the normal background radiation levels for your area… and you’ll need to know how to convert UTC to your local time zone in order to figure our when a particular reading came in… So, you can either wait for this info in coming posts, or you can make yourself feel better by actually DOING something rather than waiting for some talking head to tell you what you already suspected. Now go get ’em!!!

Thanks for reading… we’re all in this together.

~L.