With words like “radiation”, “contamination”, and “picocuries”, weaving their way through the media and drifting into post-earthquake conversations, it’s natural for residents and visitors to wonder just what is floating through the air, water, and milk in Hawaii, and whether or not it is cause for concern.
Minuscule amounts of radiation have in fact been detected. But Lynn Nakasone, administrator for the Health Department’s Environmental Health Services Division, insists that the amounts should not prevent residents or visitors from drinking the water or milk here in Hawaii. “The levels we’re seeing are very low,” she told the Associated Press. “There’s no public health risk to the drinking water and to the milk.”
Just how low is “low”? A report released on April 13, 2011 by the Department of Health stated that the results of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) laboratory analysis of Big Island milk collected on April 4, 2011 showed 18 picocuries per liter of Iodine-131, 24 picocuries per liter of Cesium-134, and 19 picocuries per liter of Cesium-137. To put this in perspective, the levels at which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would intervene and take the necessary steps to safeguard the public are 4,700 picocuries per liter for I-131 and 33,000 picocuries per liter for Cs-134 and Cs-137 combined.
Some skeptics argue that any amount of radiation is dangerous and should be avoided. If this is true, then we’d all better cancel our flight plans, dentist appointments, trips to our country’s Capitol, and even ban bananas from our homes. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, bananas naturally contain higher levels of radiation than other food, and the granite that the Capitol is constructed from contains higher levels of natural radiation than most of our homes. The truth is, the average amount of radiation exposure a person receives in a year – from that naturally occurring in foods like bananas to that which we get from routine x-rays – is about 620 millirems. Nakasone told the Star Advertiser that a person would have to drink 4,000 cups of milk at the current low levels to even reach the equivalent of a less than 4 millirem dental x-ray! And a six-hour flight? That will cost you 3 millirems of exposure.
A radiation oncology professor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston explains that we are surrounded by ionizing radiation all the time and says that radiation is “a fact of life”. (Source)
Does this mean we should stick our head in the microwave or start chugging 4, 000 cups of Big Island milk? Of course not. But we should live our lives and more importantly, stay informed. It’s ultimately up to each individual to get the facts on radiation, naturally occurring or otherwise, and decide for him or herself.
Meanwhile, the FDA and the Health Department will continue to monitor the situation here in Hawaii as well as on the mainland, testing water, milk and air for any changes in radiation levels. Although increases are not anticipated, should they occur, the FDA and Health Department will augment its testing, inspections, warnings, and intervention accordingly.