Utahns joined the chorus of U.S. leaders in reassuring the American public Thursday that it is in no danger from radiation releases linked to Japan's nuclear crisis after a massive earthquake and tsunami.
President Barack Obama said in a statement that he has ordered a review of U.S. nuclear reactor safety and that there is no reason to fear an airborne radiation plume from Japan, where the efforts continue to contain releases from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
"We do not expect harmful levels of radiation to reach the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska, or U.S. territories in the Pacific," Obama said. "That is the judgment of our Nuclear Regulatory Commission and many other experts."
Peter Jenkins, a University of Utah health physicist and chairman of Utah's Radiation Control Board, restated the message he's posted on his Facebook page for friends and family.
"The radiation levels, the ones I've seen so far," said Jenkins, who's been monitoring reports about the situation in Japan, "would not affect the health and safety of people here."
Jenkins points out that the average American is exposed to a yearly dose of background radiation from radon and other natural sources of about 1 millirem a day. Add in medical radiation and other man-made sources such as X-rays and video monitors, and it's about 2 millirems per day.
He notes reports from the perimeter of the evacuation zone in Japan and in Tokyo range from 100 to 10,000 times background levels. Even if a cloud containing the contaminated material from Japan drifts to the United States, it would only add 1 or 2 millirems to the ordinary radiation that an American might expect in a day, Jenkins said.
That notion was echoed by Rusty Lundberg, director of the Utah Division of Radiation Control. He pointed out that the state has four monitors that track radioactive material in Utah. One is outside his agency's building in western Salt Lake City, and it's detecting no variation in readings it's been getting for the past month well before the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the reactors in northern Japan, he said.
"We're seeing the same readings we see each day," Lundberg said.
Besides getting real-time readings of penetrating gamma radiation, the monitoring station outside the Utah Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ] building also captures particles on a filter as well as precipitation that picks up radioactive materials on its way to the ground.
The filters are analyzed for details on the kinds of radioactive materials coming into the environment, Lundberg said.
Author and industrial hygienist Richard L. Miller agreed that any radiation that does land in the U.S. will be highly diluted.
"If the cloud comes over," he said, "it's going to be very, very low levels."
For Miller, an industrial hygienist who wrote the U.S. Atlas of Nuclear Fallout, 1951-1962, the bigger question is what we will be able to find out about the radioactive material that lands on U.S. soil. Knowing whether there is strontium-90, cobalt-60, plutonium or other radioactive material coming from the Japanese reactors will offer better tools for tracking any future impacts on the health of Americans.
But he said that sort of monitoring hasn't been done adequately by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which operates the 140-monitor RadNet network to track radioactive materials in the air, including the one outside Utah's DEQ building.
"For epidemiological purposes," Miller said, "it would be a great idea to do this."
Downwinders United activist Mary Dickson pointed out that Utahns have a heightened awareness of drifting radiation.
"Given our history with radiation here … what's happening in Japan is very concerning," she said.
Dickson wrote about her experiences of being affected by atomic testing fallout in the dramatic play, "Exposed." She said she has been following Japan's nuclear tragedy closely to better determine the risk she might face now and in the weeks ahead.
"The only way people won't panic is if they receive open and truthful communication" from authorities, she said. "Otherwise, it's easy to expect the worst."
Potassium iodide: Should you use some to protect yourself from excess radiation?
Family doctor and Utah Health Department emergency-preparedness expert Marc Babitz said Thursday there is no need to use potassium iodide to protect your thyroid from excess radiation because there is no excess radiation.
"There isn't a risk," he said of the possibility that radiation from Japan will harm Utahns, based on current reports. "We don't have radioactive iodine in the atmosphere."
Babitz noted that the state Health Department has a stockpile of 2 million doses of potassium iodide in the event of a radiation emergency. People who take a 10-day course of it prematurely would put themselves at risk if radiation levels did spike and they needed another round.
Using potassium iodide has its own health risks, especially for people with iodine allegories, thyroid problems and certain skin disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Babitz said: "Our advice is to watch and listen, but don't do anything yet."
For more information about potassium iodide, see CDC's website. > bit.ly/921JZp
More resources on the Web
O Utah Division of Radiation Control • Web site offers useful information the Japan Fallout Watch. > 1.usa.gov/eVYOr3
U.S. Energy Department • Website gives hourly readings from radiation monitors in Delta, Milford, Cedar City and St. George, as part of its Community Environmental Monitoring Program. > wrcc.dri.edu/cemp
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission • Site tells about day-to-day radiation exposure, has a personal radiation calculator. > 1.usa.gov/23YPDz