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Radiation Particles In Food Are
A Slow-Release Health Threat

By Shafiz Qaadri, MD
Globe and Mail
After the burial of the Japanese earthquake victims, another health challenge is brewing. While measures to control damage at the Fukushima nuclear facility continue, radiation has spread. So far, low levels of radioactivity have been detected in various locations in flowers, vegetables, milk, tap water and at sea. And that's likely just the start.
Despite the Japanese government's shifting assurances of safety, international agencies are concerned about human health over the long term.
"Repeated consumption of certain products is going to intensify risks, as opposed to radiation in the air that happens once," says Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. In a country that suffered the aftermath of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this is particularly poignant.
China, the United States, Canada and other countries have already begun screening Japanese food exports for radiation. Japan itself has voluntarily stopped exports of raw milk and various vegetables from the Daiichi district, where the Fukushima nuclear facility is situated.
But it is the Japanese people themselves who may suffer the long-term health risks. Pregnant women and their fetuses, young children and people with strong family histories of certain cancers are at heightened risk. The Canadian Pediatric Society notes that the unborn fetus, particularly during the first three months of pregnancy, is more susceptible to harmful influences such as street drugs, excess alcohol, maternal illness ­ and radiation.
In 1991, I discovered this for myself. A Ukrainian patient who had lived in Pripyat, a city near the Chernobyl nuclear plant, came to my clinic. She had been pregnant with twins in 1986, the time of the Chernobyl meltdown. Her children, a boy and a girl, were born two months prematurely. They had always been somewhat weak and pale, but their health deteriorated after they arrived in Canada five years later.
The children had been losing weight, were always fatigued and would bruise and swell easily. After performing blood tests on them, I had the terrible duty to inform the mother of the diagnosis. Both of them had blood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
I remember being shocked and asking her, "How is this possible? One child might have leukemia, but two at the same time?" It was only then that I understood the impact of being from a radioactive hot zone such as Chernobyl.
Of course, the radiation exposure from the Chernobyl disaster was vastly higher than the radiation leaks in Japan ­ so far. But there is a twist to the potential long-term radiation exposure that should be considered. Even though the radiation intensity is very low, the fission product particles that have leaked into the Japanese landscape might hang around for days, years, centuries or even eons.
Consider these fission product half-lives, the time it takes for 50 per cent of the substance to dissipate: for iodine-131, eight days; cesium-137, 30 years; molybdenum-99, 200,000 years; zirconium-93, 1.5 million years; palladium-107, seven million years.
To gauge the effect of medications on human health, doctors consider two key elements ­ dosage and duration. If a doctor prescribes an antibiotic, say a tablet of 500 milligrams once a day for a week, a patient may experience side effects. But we know that the medication will be completely washed out of his system in a matter of days.
Now consider the time frame of radioactive particles. What happens if a doctor prescribes another pill, say a low dose of only one milligram a day, but this time for 30 years, or perhaps seven million years? It is this potential for low but super-long exposure that is worrying.
There are hundreds of manufacturing cycles in the human body that can be affected by chronic low radiation exposure. For example, it takes just the right biological steps over 75 days to make sperm, one month to make new skin, nine months for a baby and one year to renovate 10 per cent of your bone mass. Such processes can be derailed or deranged by ever-present radiation.
In fact, it is such high-throughput manufacturing that is particularly susceptible to radiation. The body releases 100 billion new red blood cells into the bloodstream daily. With an assembly line that productive, slight errors can accumulate rapidly, which is one of the reasons blood cancers develop.
Another frustration for medical authorities is that our standard hygiene advice for avoiding infections does not apply to radiation. No amount of hand washing, coughing into your sleeve, antiseptic gels or cloth isolation gowns will help. For the most part, you can't hide from radiation released into the environment ­ especially if you're bathing in radioactive water.
And what happens when authorities discover radiation in ocean fish that have been bathed by a cloud of radioactive particles? For a society that eats raw fish and gave the world sushi, this will be a food resource challenge.
Perhaps eventually there will be a new level of product warning, first in Japan and then elsewhere. Instead of the usual labels such as "no sugar added" or "caffeine-free," food chains may have to add "radiation-free" or "no fission products added."
In any case, there is a slow-release international health challenge on the horizon. Ten years will need to pass before we can gauge its full extent.
Dr. Shafiq Qaadri is a Toronto family physician.
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