Radiation! It's In Your Food! Put Down the Geiger Counter, Poindexter.
The truly horrible catastrophe in Japan keeps threatening people nearly two weeks after the initial earthquakes and tsunami. The nuclear power plants are damaged and there's radiation in the water, spinach and milk! Quick! Stop all exports of these products to the U.S.!
Because we get so much milk from Japan.
Make no mistake: Radiation might well prove to be yet another nightmare for Japan. After the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, thyroid cancer rates skyrocketed, mainly in children who consumed milk and leafy greens that had been exposed to high doses of radiation.
The latest news about Japan is hopeful: The Associated Press reports this morning that the radiation risk is low for Japanese citizens. The government has been quick to ban the sales of foods testing high in radiation.
On Monday the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared that there's no risk to the U.S. food supply (but they're monitoring imports).
So put down the Geiger counter, Poindexter.
Unless you want to freak yourself out with the amount of radiation you're already eating in your food.
Banana Equivalent Dose
Bananas are so radioactive -- it's the potassium -- that they've been used as casual measure for radioactivity. Luke Weston explains it like this: A banana has 10.92 Bq of radioactive K-40. Which is Physicistspeak for "really a lot of potassium and radium that equal radiation." The Banana Equivalent Dose is used to explain to dumb people how much radiation they're getting from their neighborhood nuclear power plant.
In Weston's example, he compares the radiation a person sucks up by living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant -- not a tsunami-damaged one, mind you -- to eating 1.64 bananas.
We've been fighting about irradiating food to destroy bacteria in the U.S. for ages. Europe does it, and they seem okay (unless you count snobbery levels, but those have always been elevated). Besides, the FDA says that irradiating food leaves behind nothing but the great taste of meat, not radiation. It's a different kind of radiation from what's threatening potential havoc in Japan.
Radiation's already in your chow!
For real! What horrible government entity put it there?
The physicists at Idaho State University, who publish reports intended to keep us from killing ourselves with our own anxiety, have a list of naturally occurring radioactivity in food, among other things we encounter daily. Like air.
The most common radioactive materials in food are potassium 40, and the combo of radium 226 and uranium 238. The foods with the highest concentration of these materials are bananas, carrots, white potatoes, beer, red meat, raw lima beans and drinking water.
And Brazil nuts! That treat everyone leaves at the bottom of the holiday nut bowl contains more naturally occurring radioactivity than any other food. Maybe that explains why no one eats 'em.
Between efforts to keep Japan's irradiated food out of the food supply and the amount of radioactive materials we already consume, perhaps everyone would be better off if we simmered down and focused our Japanxiety on something more productive. Like getting involved in Bakesale for Japan.