Cheryl Miller: Japan's earthquake: More to the story than radiation

Cheryl Miller

“Doctor Plutonium, will I glow in the dark if I eat spinach grown on farms near the crippled nuclear power plants in Japan? Will I die if I drink contaminated milk from Japanese cows? Will exposure to radioactive iodine in Japanese tap water result in two-headed babies?”

These might seem legitimate questions if your sole knowledge of radiation comes from sci-fi movies or recent news headlines. Since the impairment of the cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants following the March 11 earthquake off the coast of Honshu, Japan, the media have outdone themselves in peddling exaggerations and other distortions of truth. The subsequent radiation leaks provide a perfect opportunity to ramp up irrational fears and move the world a few steps backward toward the dank, dark caves from which we emerged 200,000 years ago. (As Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s erstwhile chief of staff, famously noted, "never let a serious crisis go to waste.")

Some headlines seemed deliberately misleading: “Japanese officials say nuclear fuel rods appear to be melting inside all three of the most troubled reactors as rescuers equipped with chain saws and hand picks dig out bodies and look for survivors in devastated coastal towns” (Fox News, March 14). One might logically assume from this that the melting fuel rods were the cause of the deaths and devastation.

Other panicked headlines: “U.S. Nuclear Plants Have Same Risks as Japanese Counterparts;” “Japan’s Chernobyl: Fukushima Marks the End of the Nuclear Era;” “Fukushima Radiation Release Rivals Chernobyl;” “U.S. Reacts to Nuclear Danger: Panic for Potassium Iodide.”

If that weren’t alarmist enough, last week we learned that the United States is banning the import of Japanese dairy products and produce from Fukushima prefecture, the region most affected by radiation leaks. In addition to the aforementioned spinach and milk, radiation has been detected in canola, chrysanthemum greens, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips and other vegetables.

Frightening stuff? Well, in this case, not really. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano estimated that consuming the radioactive milk for one year would expose a person to the same amount of radiation as a CT scan; eating 2 pounds of the spinach per day for one year would be the equivalent radiation of one-fifth of a CT scan. (Two pounds? I love spinach, but are you kidding me?)

Dr. Henry Royal, a radiologist at Washington University Medial School, concurs: “The most troubling thing to me is the fear that’s out of proportion to the risk.” Peter Caracappa, a physicist at Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., is in agreement: the risk of ingesting Japanese produce is very slight. In an interview by Georgia Public Broadcasting, Caracappa said, “The long and the short of it is that we’re not going to be able to detect any statistically significant change in the cancer rate for anyone as a result of the events in Japan.”

All living things are exposed to natural radiation from the earth and the sun. There’s greater exposure at higher elevations. We are exposed to radiation if we fly, smoke or even if we sleep with another living being. There’s exposure if we live near a nuclear power plant, or granite or cement buildings, or have drywall in our home. We are exposed to radiation when we eat a banana. And, of course, we are exposed when we have X-rays, CT scans or mammograms. In fact, according to National Council on Radiation Protection, the average person in the U.S. receives an effective dose equivalent of 620 millirems per year.

The travesty of sensational headlines and misinformation is not only that they scare hell out of a scientifically ignorant public — myself included — and turn public opinion against an efficient, generally safe and much-needed means of energy production; but also that they rob attention from other serious concerns and newsworthy stories emanating from this catastrophe.

Cheryl Miller can be emailed at

Messenger Post