Since the nuclear core meltdowns and explosions at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant there has been much debate about what the health effects on the population will be. On one side, the Pollyanas claim the effects will be barely noticeable. On the other side, the Cassandras claim there will be enoromous effects on the population and the environment. While both sides admit that the internal absorption of radionuclides is harmful, it is stragne that neither side has had much to say about preventive measures that can be taken to remove radionuclides from the body.
The Japanese government has talked much about soil decontamination, but it dreads to face the safer but more expensive option of moving people away from contaminated land permanently. The government has also been unrealistic in its discussion of what radionuclide decontamination means. It is not similar to chemical spills that are smaller and can be cleaned up and neutralized. The high level contamination extends over 2,000 square kilometers, and there is a much wider area of low level contamination. The scale of the task renders decontamination impossible, especially when one considers that decontamination workers would be be exposed to unacceptable levels of radiation.
One decontamination plan is to remove the first few centimeters of topsoil, but then one must put the topsoil somewhere. In addition, topsoil is a precious resource that cannot be easily replaced. Another plan is to treat the topsoil in a way that filters out the radionuclides, but this leaves one with the problem of how to dispose of what is filtered out.
So it's clear that decontamination is really the wrong word to use. The contaminants are just being moved around rather than neutralized or destroyed. This effort to decontaminate really means separating radionuclides from contact with humans, other organisms and the environment.
This "decontamination" could be done best by moving people away from contaminated areas, halting production of food in contaminated areas, and preventing any further spread of the contaminants - for example, by stopping the burning of organic waste. Unfortunately, we have to consider the second best option because Japanese society seems determined to neglect these best options. After six months of waiting for the government to provide adequate help to victims, it is clear now that they are going to be left to live on contaminated lands. They need to be trained and assisted in protecting their bodies from accumulating radionuclides. And this is not only for the people of Fukushima Prefecture, but for who anyone consumes tainted food that will find its way to markets in Japan and elsewhere.
In Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment Yablokov et. al. state, "Daily exposure to small amounts of radionuclides (mostly cesium 137) is virtually unavoidable as they get into the body with food (up to 94%), with drinking water (up to 5%), and through the air (about 1%)... The incorporation of radionuclides is now the primary cause of the deterioration of public health in contaminated territories."
Citing the work of Banderzhevskaya et. al., they write, "There is evidence that incorporation of 50 Bq/kg of cesium 137 into a child's body can produce pathological changes in vital organ systems (cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, and immune) as well as in the kidneys, liver, eyes and other organs (Bandazhevskaya et al., 2004). Such levels are not unusual in the Chernobyl-contaminated areas of Belarus, Ukraine and European Russia nowadays... It is necessary to use all possible measures to decrease the level of radionuclide incorporation in people living in those territories."
In many areas near the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, levels of radionuclide deposition are at the same dangerous levels that are still found in parts of Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine, so the issue of cesium 137 absorption is just as critical for people in Japan. It's in the soil, the food supply, and in the sewage which the Japanese might be foolish enough to put into fertilizer that goes back in the soil. Or they might burn contaminated organic waste, putting the cesium back into the atmosphere to rain down on Japan, the ocean or neighboring countries. Whatever happens, the cesium is here to stay, so the advice of Yablokov et. al. "to use all possible measures" applies to Japan. It may be worthwhile to fight for the ideal situation in which victims receive compensation with which to restart their lives in a safe location, but the reality is that this help is not likely to come.
Researchers who have studied ways to disincorporate radionuclides from the body come to these conclusions:
In the way that a thyroid gland well stocked with stable iodine will not absorb the radioactive isotope of iodine 131, other minerals can reduce the absorption of other radionuclides. Potassium resembles cesium and rubidium, and muscle cells that need potassium will absorb rubidium (harmless) or radioactive cesium (harmful) if they are present. Similarly, bones will absorb radioactive strontium when they are in search of calcium. Iron can block the uptake of plutonium. So the suggestion of these researchers is to supplement the diet of people in contaminated areas with stable elements of potassium, rubidium, calcium and iron so that cells full of these elements will not absorb radionuclides. Iodine is not mentioned because radioactive iodine 131 has a short half-life of eight days and is not a concern after the initial emergency has passed.
Furthermore, they suggest "... increasing consumption of fluids and fibre. ... Soaking in water, scalding, salting, and pickling foods such as mushrooms and vegetables and processing the fats in milk and cheeses can reduce the amount of radionuclides in some foods severalfold... Antioxidant vitamins A and C and the microelements iron, copper, zinc, selenium and cobalt, ... interfere with free-radical formation."
They also note that pectin has been very effective in eliminating cesium from the body. The Belrad Institute in Minsk has developed a product called Vitapect that they promote to alleviate the public health disaster. (If you have a problem with this organization making money off this, consider the good work this organization does and hope that they prosper.)
The interesting question to ask is why these preventive measures have not been given more publicity. There has been very little about it in the Japanese or foreign media, mainstream or otherwise. It is perhaps understandable that the government and the nuclear industry would not advertise these methods. It would be an admission that there is indeed a reason to worry about the effects of this accident. Nonetheless, it might help the government's and TEPCO's image in the future if they can point out that they did everything possible to limit damage.
It is more difficult to understand why the anti-nuclear side has not promoted preventive measures. Their decision not to publicize the research mentioned above has some unpleasant implications. They may not want to encourage people to falsely believe that they can protect themselves from the grave harm of radiation. They may hesitate to give the medical advice to take mineral supplements because for some people with medical conditions it might not be advisable, but this concern can be covered by adding standard advice to consult with a physician.
The most disturbing question the anti-nuclear advocates need to answer is whether they could be content years from now to find out things were not as bad as they feared because preventive help was given. Having staked out the position that Fukushima will be a public health disaster, and that a wider evacuation is necessary, can they offer advice now to individuals who want to protect themselves in the non-ideal situations that they find themselves in? Unfortunately, preventive measures will just add confounding variables to the natural experiment. It presents a moral dilemma to the antinuclear movement, but after a few seconds of hesitation, the right thing to do should be obvious.
A mass distribution of mineral supplements is, compared to all other measures under consideration, inexpensive, practical and supported by research. This absence from the news coverage and blogosphere discussion of Fukushima is inexplicable.
1. Belrad Institute http://www.belrad-institute.org/UK/doku.php
2. Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, vol. 1181:303-304. (New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009). http://www.nyas.org/Publications/Annals/Detail.aspx?cid=f3f3bd16-51ba-4d7b-a086-753f44b3bfc1
3. G.S. Bandazhevskaya, Nesterenko, V.B., Babenko, V. I., Yerkovich, T.V., & Bandazhevsky, Yu. I. "Relationship between Caesium (137Cs) load, cardiovascular symptoms, and source of food in ‘Chernobyl’ children – preliminary observations after intake of oral apple pectin," Swiss Medical Weekly. 134 (2004): 725-729. http://www.smw.ch/docs/pdf200x/2004/49/smw-10219.pdf