The latest weather forecast reports that the winds over the nuclear power plant in Japan have switched directions, and instead of blowing radioactive particles out to sea, the nuclear plume is drifting over Japan. Which is tragic, really. Given that there’s over 5000 miles of ocean between Japan and the United States for radioactive materials to disperse, I’d rather take the fallout this way than see Japan further under siege.
But winds are fickle, and the battle to contain the nuclear crisis at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant still rages.
You already know how I feel about stockpiling iodide pills (DON’T). And I gave you the 11 reasons why US left-coasters shouldn’t freak out about radiation in Japan (namely, we’re safe right now). But I have yet to put on my white coat and fill you in on what you should know about nuclear radiation and how it affects our bodies.
So here goes. Are you listening there in the back (Bueller…Bueller)? Where’s my chalkboard? Now keep in mind that I nearly had a mental meltdown trying to keep my grades up in my pre-med physics classes at Duke. This is not your friendly neighborhood nuclear physicist’s lecture. So we’ll keep this real simple.
Radiation 101: The Facts, Just The Facts, Ma’am
Radiation surrounds us all the time. It’s in the air, the ground, our homes, and our food (oddly enough, bananas and brazil nuts clock in as the most radioactive foods). The average human is exposed to about three millisieverts of radiation per year, mostly from cosmic radiation and medical procedures. At these levels, any damage done can be repaired by a healthy body. While this small dose of radiation has not been shown to have any adverse biological effects on humans, higher doses can definitely hurt us.
For example, the power plant in Japan has been recorded spewing out up to 800 millisieverts per hour.
So What Happens?
When cells — and what lies within them — get exposed to radiation, components of DNA and critical proteins within the cell get all jazzed up (ionized), meaning that the electrons with our atoms get kicked out, causing the DNA strands to break and the proteins to cramp up (denature).
· Leads to the production of free radicals
· Breaks critical chemical bonds
· Leads to changes in cellular structure within irradiated cells
· Damages vital molecules, such as DNA, RNA, and other regulatory proteins
Because our cells are mostly water, this ionizing radiation breaking H20 down is harmful to free radicals (H+ and OH-). While cells are damaged by free radicals all the time, they normally repair themselves, keeping the body healthy. However, high doses of radiation can damage the cell’s ability to repair itself, and then all hell breaks loose.
This shakes things up all over the body.
Next: How radiation can damage the body