Soothe your T-Zone with Cesium

Experts then, experts today. Is it any different today as we see many medical specialists telling us that international standards for radiation exposure are needlessly much too low? Just relax, breathe it all in and soothe that T-Zone.

A recent column in the Japan Times by Minoru Matsutani sought to allay public fears of radiation by telling readers that, basically, yes, there are some health problems among people who have lived for years with high levels of the Chernobyl fallout, but, gosh, there are just so many confounding variables that make it impossible to conclude that radiation is harmful. The stigma and fear of these areas cause the educated class to flee, economic investment never comes, and these areas become dismal backwaters of poverty. Many people drink and smoke, and eat unhealthy diets, and fall into a depression not caused directly by radiation. All of these factors are compounded by the economic difficulties that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union shortly after the Chernobyl accident.

Many of these confounding variables have, in fact, been sorted out by researchers in the former Soviet Union, and they claim that the accident caused an additional 1,000,000 deaths and enormous declines in health among millions more of the survivors. But let’s assume for a moment that one of these variables is indeed confounding. Minoru Matsutani refers particularly to the high incidence of smoking among Chernobyl victims. When they get cancer and cardiovascular disease, it is impossible to know how much of it was caused by radiation. It’s interesting to note here that thirty years ago it was still controversial that smoking had these effects on health. Now that many people are trying to demonstrate that the radiation Japanese people have been exposed to is harmless, the pollyanas who once said that smoking was harmless now say that the harm believed to be caused by radiation is caused by smoking!

But, oh, the irony. The inconvenient thing about bringing tobacco into the discussion is that there is the little known fact that tobacco smoke contains radionuclides that are the likely causes of lung diseases associated with smoking. This information is not difficult to find, but there seems to have been a deliberate attempt by non-government pressure groups, government regulators and tobacco companies to not publicize this hazard. The latter had obvious reasons not to reveal it, while the former groups were just starting to win battles with the tobacco companies based on research on the chemical hazards in tobacco smoke. The research on radionuclides was a totally new dimension to the problem, and anti-smoking groups took a pragmatic approach to dealing with the tobacco industry. Instead of opening a new battle in the war when victory was at hand, they chose to stay on the narrative about the dangers of carbon monoxide, tar and nicotine.

The photos above illustrate that many experts are just as ignorant as the amateurs, and some of them are willing to sell out to special interests. Lay people, now as before, are on their own in the search for reliable information and experts who are not in the sway of optimistic delusions or corrupting influences.

The way that this issue has stayed hidden from public awareness illustrates a general pattern of ignorance in society about background threats that we should all be paying more attention to. If you read the top news stories of the past, you find no hint of the disasters that actually happened later and bit us in the collective ass.
  • During the Cold War, we had the ability to detect within minutes a nuclear weapons attack that never came, but for days after the explosion at Chernobyl, no Western spy satellites or spy networks were able to detect what was happening (or so we are told). Even Gorbachev had to be told by the Swedish government after nuclear engineers there had detected fallout at a Swedish nuclear plant. Soviet officials close to the accident were afraid to tell Moscow what had happened.
  • In 2003, the SARS virus came out of nowhere and put international air travel into lockdown.
  • Most amateur and professional investors failed to foresee the collapse of the global economy in 2008.
  • The long record of corruption and reckless disregard for safety of the Japanese nuclear industry was totally off the radar until a giant tsunami hit Japan in 2011.
  • Cigarette smoke is radioactive? Who knew?

The research into this question is found easily through internet searches.

For over 40 years, researchers and tobacco corporations have known that cigarettes contain radionuclides. The contamination is sourced in naturally occurring radioactive radon gas which is absorbed and trapped in apatite rock. Apatite, or phosphate rock, is mined for the purpose of formulating the phosphate portion of most chemical fertilizers. Polonium releases ionizing alpha radiation which is 20 times more harmful than either beta or gamma radiation when exposed to internal organs.
Lung cancer rates increased significantly during most of the 1900's. It's no coincidence that between 1938 and 1960, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco tripled commensurate with the increased use of chemical fertilizers and Persistant Organic Pollutant (POP) accumulation.
In 1982, tobacco researchers DiFranza and Winters concluded that smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes per day exposed a person to the same radiation as 300 chest x-rays per year. Due to improvements in X-ray technology and increasing levels of radionuclides in tobacco, the Institute of Medicine now estimates that a heavy smoker is exposed to the equivalent radiation as up to 2,000 chest X-rays every year. The National Institutes of Health state that tobacco is by far the largest source of radiation for the American public…
Recently released tobacco corporation internal memos and reports indicate that they were well aware of radiation contamination as early as 1964, and discussed methods to remove polonium from tobacco in 1975. In 1977, Phillip Morris confirmed that superphosphate fertilizer was a source of polonium.

The knowledge that tobacco smoke is radioactive is either good news or bad news for someone living with the fallout from Fukushima. 
(It certainly puts smokers who want to complain about the accident in an awkward position.) We know that there are radionuclides in the dirt blowing in the wind this year, but how does this risk compare with the risk of smoking for twenty years?

While we live in the Tokyo area with a certain amount of fallout from the Fukushima accident, it is difficult to assess the risks posed by the cesium in the soil and compare them with the risks of tobacco smoke, direct or second hand (I’m not a smoker, but as a child I lived with two parents who smoked before the days when people worried about second hand smoke).

The Japanese government, supported by advice from the IAEA, has decided to try to decontaminate Fukushima prefecture by asking municipalities around the country to incinerate and dispose of their “fair share” of “low level waste.” Apparently, the large cities have electrostatic precipitators in their incinerators that can trap most of the contaminants, but there seems to be no plan in place for safe disposal of the ash, nor is there a way to ascertain the safety of the levels that don’t get retained by the precipitators. It is revolting and jaw-dropping to see this stupid decision endorsed by so many leaders of large urban areas when the obvious safe procedure would be to leave the toxic material where it is and move the much smaller rural population away from it. Fukushima, we’ll take your people but not your garbage.

It is clear that  this dilution and expanded contamination has been done only in the vain hope that the badly contaminated areas in the northeast can be declared restored, remediated or decontaminated – something which will probably prove impossible. Rather than helping residents relocate, the plan is to reduce contamination to a tolerable level. This will, it is only hoped, allow advocates of nuclear energy to say that the Fukushima accident has been resolved.

While it is alarming to know that all the incineration of radioactive waste will re-circulate cesium into the atmosphere and create new wet and dry fallouts in places that can’t be known in advance, it is difficult to compare this threat with the danger we have always tolerated from tobacco smoke. Is an atom of polonium 210 in my lungs more harmful than an atom of various fission products from the Fukushima accident? The estimate that smoking equals 2,000 x-rays per year is just an expert’s guess at comparing internal radiation from smoking to external radiation from medical scans, but whatever the number, it’s a pretty heavy exposure, and yet millions of people live with it. What is the comparison for all the hot particles I will breathe in while living in Japan? I suspect it is much less than the risks of smoking tobacco. We are warned that hot particles have been detected in the air in Tokyo and Seattle, but I also know that millions of children are exposed to second hand cigarette smoke, and millions of smokers smoke thirty cigarettes a day for decades before lung cancer occurs in some of them. Am I supposed to be stricken with fear and a sudden urge to evacuate my family, or should I just carry on here while being angry that this unforgivable accident was not prevented?

Finally, there are two more ironies in the issue of radioactive smoke. One is that the Japanese authorities realized in September that this year’s tobacco crop was contaminated with 217 Bq/kg of cesium 134 and 137. They decided that it’s “safe” to let this go to market, and why not? What are they supposed to say? They could say, “Be careful. Tobacco smoke is radioactive and it might give you cancer,” but that would be only slightly more hypocritical than the long standing policy toward tobacco.

The final irony is that there is another kind of leaf that millions of people like to smoke, but it’s illegal. Researchers have tried to link it to cancer for years but have come up empty-handed. The smoke of this leaf has numerous nasty chemicals that should lead to poor health, but unlike tobacco, it is not grown in fertilizer that contains radionuclides. That lends support to the theory that it is not tar, nicotine and chemicals that cause cancer in smokers, but the radionuclides in the smoke.

UPDATE December 16, 2012:

Wired Magazine covered the history of the tobacco industry's cover up of what it knew about radionuclides in tobacco.


1 comment:

  1. While distrust of ' experts' is always a healhty thing , & lord knows tobacco marketing for much of the 20th century was a massive hoax on western consumers , the lies continue.

    Big tobacco in the Far East & Developing world, energy interests across the planet ( oil is the major player , but so are " Clean Coal " and the Nuclear industry so well lambasted here ) and lately the multi-national purvayors of Stocks & Bond. We are being lied to , sold products & services , and basically having our planet despoiled whilst our pockets are picked... and it's all done with our acquiesence...heck some of us willingly participate.

    Jobs , Jobs , Jobs .... the mantra which tells us to be quiet , be happy , take the cash and shut up.

    But yet.... as a father , a social observer , a one-time-participant in the game of politics, a man of faith ( vaguely defined but nonetheless deep )and a self-confessed optimist , I must say... to paraphrase President Obama , who was paraphrasing MLK.... The ark of human history is ever upward, and it trends toward freedom.

    Have faith , as on a simple basis , the world is a wonderful place, full of beauty , evolving ( sorry GOP candidates , it IS evolving ) as it should.

    Whoever , or whatever your theory on God , be calmed by the fact that She DOES want us to be happy . She just has a wicked sense of humour.

    Might as well laugh along with Her

    Dover Boy