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Radiation Myths

We are not dying from radiation exposure as some would lead us to believe. We need to question what we read and hear. When we read that someone died or has cancer and it is “suspected” or “assumed” to be from the person using a cell phone, receiving a chest x ray, or living in a state with a nuclear power plant, we simply cannot believe this information at face value. We have made it too easy to blame something with no evidence to support the claim. We want to be able to blame something when a loved one gets sick. Sometimes we can, but more often it is too complex to point to only one issue.

That is when we need to try hard not to fall to hearsay, rumor, and gossip. Sometimes it’s hard to decide whom we should believe so it is easiest to believe the person or people who say things we already agree with. If we never did like that nuclear power plant being built one county away from us, then it is easy to blame that plant for everything that goes wrong. If the plant isn’t to blame, then we spend a lot of time and money (and increase our dislike of the plant) without coming to a solution on the issue.

We’re calling this section “Separating Myth from Reality.” The idea is to take some recent and some old myths or news items and discuss the issues. We will continue to expand this area as items about radiation protection or radiation hazards come into the news, so check back often.

Separating Myth from Reality

“A two-month-old infant was put through an x-ray scanning machine at the airport; infant rushed to hospital to prevent radiation poisoning.”

Yes, this did happen; we are not making it up. A two-month-old infant was put on the conveyer and was screened by the x-ray unit that is usually looking at carry-on luggage. When the operator of the unit saw the outline of the infant, the x rays were turned off. The amount of radiation exposure the infant could have received, at the most, would barely be the same as what we receive daily from natural background radiation (about 0.01 mSv)—at least 100,000 times lower than what might even cause the infant to get sick. What was worse for the infant in this case was the ambulance travel (possible accident) and the needle sticks at the hospital to obtain blood and other body samples to see if the radiation caused any effects.

“Coming soon to an airport near you—machines with x-ray vision that can see right through you.”

You may have thought the metal detector you had been walking through at the airport all this time was exposing you to radiation. It wasn’t, but now there is a next generation of screening detectors for people to walk through that does expose us to radiation. The amount of radiation to which we are exposed (0.00001 to 0.002 mSv per scan) is much lower than what we receive daily from natural background radiation (about 0.01 mSv).

“The cow had two heads as a result of radiation releases from the local nuclear power plant.”

This is the type of claim we can never formally prove right or wrong, even though it wouldn't be true. People might say things like “The cow is here and the nuclear plant is over there. What else do we need to know?” There is no scientific evidence to suggest that radiation exposure would cause a two-headed cow.

We might think that radiation does some odd things because of television and comics. Some favorites are Spiderman® and the Hulk®. If you don’t know the story of the Incredible Hulk, here is the introduction to him taken from the comics: “While for most of the population, exposure to gamma radiation results in death, there are a few select individuals where exposure can allow the person to develop super-human abilities. In the Marvel® Universe, a resulting gamma mutation due to the exposure to gamma radiation is determined by psychological as well as physiological causes.” Spiderman is similar in that his superhuman powers were the result of being bitten by a radioactive spider.

These ideas are great for comics, cartoons, and some television shows, but radiation doesn’t really do these things—sorry, but no two-headed cows. And small radiation exposures do not result in human death or disease. Actually, if radiation could give us superhuman powers, we might want to be exposed!

“Potassium iodide pills are being distributed to people living within 25 miles of the nuclear power plant so they will be protected from radiation if there is a release.”

Taking potassium iodide pills will help make sure your thyroid doesn’t take up as much radioactive iodide as it would if you didn’t take the pills. The iodide in the potassium iodide pills fills up the thyroid gland, not leaving much or any room for radioactive iodide that you might breathe in or take in through your mouth. The pills do not protect you from other types of radiation that may be released and they will not protect you from the radioiodine if it is only outside your body. Plus, to be most effective, the pills need to be taken within a few hours prior to an incident or within a short time after radioactive iodide was released.

“After she was seen in the emergency room, she was sent to radiology, where she had too many x rays done.”

What is “too” many? There is no limit on prescribed medical radiation exposure. While the decision that an x ray is necessary is a physician’s, the decision to have one done belongs to you and your physician. Obviously, there are situations where you might not be able to participate in that decision (heart attack, bad car accident) and we have to rely on the physician to make the right decision. In other cases, it is up to us to ask our physicians about the benefits of having one or more x rays done.

“Natural radiation won’t hurt you, but human-made radiation will.”

Radiation is the same whether it is made in nature or made by humans. There is no difference in what occurs as a result of exposure to natural versus human-made radiation.

“There is no harmful radiation at the site.”

This article title leads us to ask other questions: “So, was radioactive material found at the site at all?” “What makes the radiation not harmful?” Well, in this case, radioactive material was found at the site and the reason it was said not to be harmful was simply based on the fact that the amount was not enough to cause harm to anyone. A further question we would ask that was not addressed in the article is “Why was the radioactive material there?” Harmful or not, what happened to cause it to be at this site? That is where we should focus our attention.

“Your food becomes radioactive if it is irradiated.”

Actually this statement and “irradiation of food creates harmful chemicals in the food” are the most common arguments against food irradiation. The truth is, the food does not become radioactive and there is no scientific evidence that harmful chemicals are formed.

The reason most people think food irradiation is best for our food is because there have been so many food-borne illnesses and deaths that irradiation could prevent (killing the bacteria that is in food and causes you to get sick). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if only 50 percent of our food was irradiated, nearly one million cases of bacterial infections could be avoided and 350 lives saved each year.

“You should go to your doctor and ask for a whole-body CT (computerized tomography or CAT) scan so you can find out if you have cancer or not.”

A whole-body CT scan alone will not confirm the presence or absence of cancer, as the headline suggests. Nonetheless, this headline is interesting in that, even though some people prefer not to have additional radiation exposure, many came to doctor’s offices and hospitals to have a whole-body CT scan performed. In addition, many free-standing medical clinics with CT units were built to handle the demand for the scans.

A whole-body CT scan is a CT scan of the abdomen, a CT scan of the chest, and a CT scan of the pelvis. If you are feeling sick or have a family history of a certain disease that can be detected with a CT scan, then perhaps one of these three should be performed. That is a conversation you need to have with a doctor.

It would be nice if we could have one simple test done to find out what is wrong if we are sick. Current technology cannot do that yet. That is why exams involving radiation exposure should only be performed when there is a medical reason. They must be prescribed by a doctor either because you’re sick or injured, or because your family history suggests you would benefit from what you will learn from them.

Radiation Myths

“The radiation from the dental x ray caused her to have severe headaches.”

Large doses of radiation can cause harmful effects like nausea and vomiting. Small doses of radiation from more common everyday activities cannot. Radiation doses from diagnostic medical exams like dental x rays will not cause headaches or otherwise make you sick.

“Radiation detectors at every port of entry (shipping, airports, etc.) will prevent a terrorist attack.”

Radiation detectors at ports may detect various types of materials (explosives, radioactive materials) in incoming containers or on incoming people. If we do detect these materials and they were going to be used for something bad, then we have prevented that from happening. There are many ways a terrorist can harm us and cause panic; in many of those cases, radiation detectors at a port of entry will not (by themselves) prevent an attack.