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How Does Nuclear Radiation Affect The Body?

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How Does Nuclear Radiation Affect The Body?

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).

Ionizing Radiation:

·      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

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Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.  She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.  Lissa blogs at and also created two online communities - and She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.


+ add your own
12:32AM PDT on Jun 7, 2011

let's leave this as hypothetical and not find out for sure.

5:31PM PDT on Apr 14, 2011

I'd rather not find out!
Green energy, anyone?

3:55AM PDT on Apr 14, 2011

Foods such as apples, buckwheat, millet, sunflower seeds, super green food powders protect and can help lessen the damage of radiation. 

5:47PM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

@Brian E, really? When? It's been proven that most people will have *no* side effects from 5 rem per year (though a total exposure of no more than 1 rem per year of age is recommended). See various federal standards for radiation worker safety. Canada and international restrict it to 10 rem per 5 years (no more than 5 rem per year) with up to 10x the dose limits allowed in the case of a "radiation event" (with the worker still expected to have no serious effects).

The 1/2 life of Plutonium (generally the longest lived man-made radioactive) is between 14 years and 80,800,000 years (with the most common in reactors being Pu-241 which is 14 years). Of course, after being fissioned, there is relatively little Plutonium left - it has been mostly broken down into things like Iodine-131 (which has a half-life of 8 days).

If you are going to talk about "proof", you need to provide sources.

4:58PM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

It's been proven that Low Level Radiation exposure
is harmfull . Also the 1/2 life of most of man made
Radiation is in the Billions of years .
Also there Many more man made radioactive substances
Emitted then what is in general conversation .

9:38AM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

thx noted

6:02AM PDT on Mar 30, 2011

Thanks or the good article . I live in Japan and I really appreciate such honest and informative articles . Thank you also for your kind words

10:00AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

Another reason for clean, green energy!

9:33AM PDT on Mar 28, 2011

Thanks for the information.

11:35PM PDT on Mar 26, 2011

Thanks for the informative article. My heart goes out to the people of Japan and I salute them for handling the aftermath in the mature way they have. Out here in India, there would have been chaos and corruption if such disaster struck

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