How to Reduce Your Risk of Radiation (Updated)

Preface: This post is not intended to be the last word on the topic. Instead, it is only an attempt to start a conversation on radiation protection. We hope that top scientists with the necessary expertise will pick up the ball and run with it.

Amazing Story … or Myth?

In Fukushima Meltdown & Modern Radiation: Protecting Ourselves and Our Future Generations, Dr. John Apsley – a medical doctor, with degrees in nutrition and acupuncture – writes:

In August of 1945, St. Francis’s Hospital (Uragami Daiichi Hospital) in Nagasaki was located one mile from ground zero. The atomic bomb that exploded killed tens of thousands of Japanese. Many citizens died instantly, and many more passed on within days or weeks of the blast. The Director of Internal Medicine in the hospital, Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki, saved all staff members and most hospital patients by having them adhere to a strictly vegetarian diet of uncontaminated brown rice, fermented foods, sea algae and land vegetables. Sweets of all types were strictly forbidden, and salt sufficed as the main condiment. Another hospital exactly one mile from ground zero did not follow this dietary regimen. All other treatments remained constant. The loss of human life due to radiation poisoning suffered at this second nearby hospital approached 100%.

Dr. Hiromitsu Watanabe – from the Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine at Hiroshima University – confirms:

In August 9th, 1945, the 2nd atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. At the time, physician Tatuichirou Akizuki, worked with 20 employees, caring for 70 tuberculoses patients in” Uragami Daiichi Hospital” located about 1.4km away from the hypocenter. However, these people, including Dr. Akizuki, escaped from death caused by acute radiation damage. Dr. Akizuki conjectured that the reason there was no nuclear bomb disease was that these people had consumed cups of wakame miso soup (miso soup with garnish of wakame seaweed) 3) everyday. Later, his assumption was published in the English language for the information of the Western population. On April 26, 1986, after the accident at Chernobyl, Russia, many Europeans consumed miso soup to prevent radiation diseases.

This story may be apocryphal; but Dr. Watanabe and his colleagues have conducted tests allegedly showing that miso reduces radiation damage in mice.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the National Cancer Institute claim that they’ve invent a high-tech medicine which may render radiation harmless.

We’re not vouching for either claim.  But we hope they wet your appetite to learn how we might be able to reduce damage from radiation.

What Can We do to Reduce Radiation Risks?

This essay provides an introduction to some of the main concepts on reducing the risk from radiation.

This post is broken into the following sections:

I.    Step 1: Reduce Exposure
II.  Certain Minerals Can Reduce Absorption of Harmful Radiation
III. Other Vitamins and Minerals Which Protect Against Radiation Damage
IV.  Antioxidants: Helpful Weapons Against Radiation Damage
V.   Other Things Which Offer Some Radiation Protection
VI.  What To Do If Exposed to Extremely High Doses of Radiation

Step 1: Reduce Exposure

Initially, we should reduce our exposure to radiation in the first place. For example, if you live in an area receiving any radiation exposure, you should take off your shoes and leave them by the door (Asian style) and use a Hepa vacuum to get rid of excess dust inside your house.

We should also be moderate with our consumption of fish caught off the Japanese, Hawaiian or West coast of the U.S. and Canada, as radiation can bioaccumulate in fish. See this, this, and this … and the video below.

You may also consider filtering the water in your house with a filter which removes radiation.

(At the end of this essay, we’ll tell you what to do if you have the misfortune of getting exposed to high doses of radiation.)

Certain Minerals Can Reduce Absorption of Harmful Radiation

It is well-known that potassium iodide works to protect against damage from radioactive iodine by saturating our body (the thyroid gland, specifically) with harmless iodine, so that our bodies are unable to absorb radioactive iodine from nuclear accidents.

For example, the World Health Organization notes:

When taken at the appropriate dosage and within the correct time interval around exposure to radioactive iodine, KI [i.e. potassium iodide] saturates the thyroid gland with stable (non-radioactive) iodine. As a result, radioactive iodine will not be taken up and stored by the thyroid gland.

KI only protects against one particular radioactive element, radioactive iodine, which has a half life of only 8.02 days. That means that the iodine loses half of its radioactivity within 8 days. For example, after the initial Fukushima melt-down, radioactive iodine was found in California kelp. But the radioactive iodine quickly dissipated. *

Fortunately – while little-known in the medical community – other harmless minerals can help “saturate” our bodies so as to minimize the uptake of other types of harmful radiation.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Army Medical Department Center and School explained in its book Medical Consequences of Radiological and Nuclear Weapons (Chapter 4):

One of the keys to a successful treatment outcome is to reduce or eliminate the uptake of internalized radionuclides before they can reach the critical organ.

***

The terms “blocking” or “diluting” agent can, in most cases, be used interchangeably. These compounds reduce the uptake of a radionuclide by saturating binding sites with a stable, nonradioactive element, thereby diluting the deleterious effect of the radioisotope. For example, potassium iodide is the FDA-recommended treatment to prevent radioactive iodine from being sequestered in the thyroid…. Nonradioactive strontium compounds may also be used to block the uptake of radioactive strontium. In addition, elements with chemical properties similar to the internalized radio-nuclide are often used as blocking agents. For example, calcium, and to a lesser extent phosphorus, can be used to block uptake of radioactive strontium.

The International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) conducted a study that confirmed those not ingesting adequate levels of minerals such as calcium were more vulnerable to absorbing and retaining higher levels of radionuclides:

Within the framework of a Coordinated Research Project (CRP) organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, the daily dietary intakes of seven elements by adult populations living in nine Asian countries were estimated. The countries that participated in the study were Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK), and Vietnam and together they represented more than half of the world population. The seven elements studied were calcium, cesium, iodine, potassium, strontium, thorium, and uranium. These elements have chemical and biological similarity to some of the radionuclides abundantly encountered during nuclear power production and therefore data on these elements could provide important information on their biokinetic behavior. Analyses of diet samples for these seven elements were carried out using highly sensitive and reliable analytical techniques. One thousand one hundred and sixty analytical determinations were made on two hundred and twenty samples of typical diets consumed in these countries to estimate the daily intakes of these elements by the adult Asian population. The median daily dietary intakes for the adult Asian population were found to be 0.45 g calcium, 7 microg cesium, 90 microg iodine, 1.75 g potassium, 1.65 mg strontium, 1 microg thorium, and 1 microg uranium. When compared with the intakes proposed for ICRP Reference Man by International Commission for Radiological Protection, these intakes were lower by factors of 0.41 for calcium, 0.7 for cesium, 0.45 for iodine, 0.53 for potassium, 0.87 for strontium, 0.33 for thorium, and 0.52 for uranium. The lower daily intakes of calcium, cesium, and iodine by Asian population could be due to significantly lower consumption of milk and milk products, which are rich in these elements. The significantly lower intake of calcium in most of the Asian countries may lead to higher uptake of fission nuclide 90Sr and could result in perhaps higher internal radiation dose.

The American Association of Physicists In Medicine agrees:

As does the book published in 2005 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, called Weapons of Mass Casualties and Terrorism Response:

(You may want to make sure you get enough phosphorous, as well).

Plutonium is treated like iron by our bodies. So getting enough iron will help reduce absorption of plutonium. And see this.

Potassium may block the uptake of radioactive cesium 137, although this is somewhat less clear. While studies of plants, fish and rats show that potassium blocks cesium in those organisms, there have been very few scientific tests of ability of potassium to cesium uptake in humans … and those tests have had mixed results. ** In any event, potassium is an essential mineral, so getting enough of it is good for your general health.

Here are the recommended daily allowances (RDA) for various minerals (data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture):

You can buy calcium, potassium, iron supplements. You can also buy non-radioactive strontium supplements. Or incorporate foods high in calcium, potassium, and iron.

Other Vitamins and Minerals Which Protect Against Radiation Damage

A number of scientific studies conclude that Vitamin A helps to protect us from radiation. See this, this and this.

Numerous studies show that Vitamin C helps to protect the body against radiation.

Vitamin D can help repair damage to DNA, and may help protect against low-level radiation. As Science Daily reports:

Radiological health expert Daniel Hayes, Ph.D., of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene suggests that a form of vitamin D could be one of our body’s main protections against damage from low levels of radiation. Writing in the International Journal of Low Radiation, Hayes explains that calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D, may protect us from background radiation and could be used as a safe protective agent before or after a low-level nuclear incident.

***

“Vitamin D by its preventive/ameliorating actions should be given serious consideration as a protective agent against sublethal radiation injury, and in particular that induced by low-level radiation,” concludes Hayes.

It takes a couple of weeks or months to build up our body’s levels of Vitamin D. You cannot just pop a bunch of pills and raise your Vitamin D level. You should never take more than the recommended dose, and – even if you did – it wouldn’t raise your vitamin D level all at once. As such, we should start now

Vitamin E has also shown promise in protecting from low-level radiation, at least in animal studies. Here and here (the natural form may be healthier for you than the synthetic form).

Here are the RDAs for vitamins (data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture):

You can buy vitamin supplements, or eat foods rich in vitamins A, C, D and E.

Selenium also helps protect our bodies from radiation. See this, this and this. Brazil nuts are the best food source of selenium. (And – given that the New England Journal of Medicine says that eating nuts helps us live longer – eating a handful of mixed raw nuts every day makes some sense.)

Antioxidants: Helpful Weapons Against Radiation Damage

It may sound strange, but it is well-documented that antioxidants help to protect against damage from radiation. Specifically, one of the main ways in which low-level ionizing radiation damages our bodies is by the creation of free radicals. (This 2-minute BBC videoshows how damaging free radicals can be to your health.)

For example, Columbia University explains the damaging effects of low-level radiation through free radical creation:

Indeed, creation of free radicals is virtually the definition of ionizing radiation. Wikipedia notes:

Ionizing … radiation is radiation composed of particles that individually carry enough kinetic energy to liberate an electron from an atom or molecule, ionizing it. Ionizing radiation is generated through nuclear reactions ….

A free radical is simply an atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell.

Wikipedia continues:

Ionization of molecules can lead to radiolysis, (breaking chemical bonds,) and formation of highly reactive free radicals. These free radicals may then react chemically with neighbouring materials even after the original radiation has stopped. (e.g. ozone cracking of polymers by ozone formed by ionization of air). Ionizing radiation can disrupt crystal lattices in metals, causing them to become amorphous, with consequent swelling, material creep, and embrittlement. Ionizing radiation can also accelerate existing chemical reactions such as polymerization and corrosion, by contributing to the activation energy required for the reaction. Optical materials darken under the effect of ionizing radiation.

An antioxidant – on the other hand – is a molecule stable enough to donate an electron to a rampaging free radical and neutralize it … reducing its capacity to damage our body. In other words, antioxidants reduce the ability of radiation to injure us through their free radical scavenging ability.

That’s why doctors recommend eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables to help protect against radiation (via CBS’ show The Doctors):

 

Fresh fruits and vegetables are vital to include in your diet. And some – like blueberries – are quite high in antioxidants. But there are actually more concentrated sources of antioxidants which are inexpensive and easy to obtain.

Glutathione – the “master antioxidant”, which is in every cell of your body, and which helps you utilize all the other antioxidants which you ingest – is probably the most important one to focus on.

Numerous studies have shown that glutathione can help protect cells against radiation damage, including studies published in the following journals:

Dr. Jimmy Gutman – a practicing physician, former Undergraduate Director and Residency Training Director of Emergency Medicine at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, who has served on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians – claims:

Raising glutathione levels protects cells from damage from the most dangerous of free radicals, the hydroxyl-radical, is released when ionizing radiation hits us.

Here’s how to boost your glutathione levels.

One source argues:

During exposure to low-level doses (LLD) of ionizing radiation (IR), the most of harmful effects are produced indirectly, through radiolysis of water and formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS). The antioxidant enzymes – superoxide dismutase (SOD): manganese SOD (MnSOD) and copper-zinc SOD (CuZnSOD), as well as glutathione (GSH), are the most important intracellular antioxidants in the metabolism of ROS.

Exercise also boosts antioxidants (and see this). So does adequate sleep.

Finally, thinking about radiation may be stressful. But studies show that deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi and other forms of relaxation raise antioxidants and decrease free radicals. Some of the studies can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Other Things Which Offer Some Radiation Protection

Many other foods, herbs and supplements have shown some efficacy in helping to protect against radiation poisoning. This is not intended as a shopping list … there are just too many things to buy, and combining some herbs with others may not be ideal. Rather, this is meant as a resource to keep handy, so that – if you have access to some of these items – you know what some of your options are.

Many inexpensive foods have shown protective properties against radiation, including:

  • Curcurim (and see this) – the active ingredient in turmeric which, in turn, is in yellow curry (available in Indian and Thai dishes)
  • Garlic (one Indian tribe living in the desert of Nevada used to eat bulbs of raw garlic to help protect against radiation from the above-ground nuclear tests)
  • Miso (when it has been “long-fermented”, instead of fermented for a shorter time)
  • Many types of seaweed (see this, this, this and this; but buy seaweed grown outside of Japan and other polluted waters)

Many herbs and supplements available at health food stores or drugstores have shown some protective properties against radiation, including:

  • Chlorella, a blue-green algae (see this and this)
  • Holy basil (and see this; also called tulasi; this is the top herb in traditional Ayurvedic – i.e. Indian – medicine)
  • Panax Ginseng, a traditional “adaptogen” in Chinese medicine (see this and this)
  • Sesamol (an extract from sesame seeds)
  • Spirulina, a blue-green algae available at health food stores

(Consult your qualified healthcare provider before taking any herbs, as they can have side effects. Many of the herbs and supplements work by increasing antioxidants in your body, as discussed above.)

And there is some evidence that brightly-colored produce may have some protective properties.

(And see this and this.)

What To Do If Exposed to Extremely High Doses of Radiation

Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen explains how to reduce exposure in case of a worst case scenario:

[In a worst case scenario, for example, if the fuel pool at Fukushima reactor 4 were to topple over], I would close my windows, turn the air conditioner on, replace the filters frequently, damp mop, put a HEPA filter in the house and try to avoid as much of the hot particles as possible. You are not going to walk out with a Geiger counter and be in a plume that is going to tell you the meter. The issue will be on the West Coast, hot particles. And the solution there is HEPA filters and avoiding them.

Similarly – as geeky as it may look – you might want to consider wearing a dust mask outside during the brief periods that Fukushima might spew out high levels of “hot particles” … especially if the wind is blowing from Japan towards the U.S.:

In addition, rain is one of the primary ways that radiation is spread outside of the vicinity of the nuclear accident. As a parent who doesn’t want to tell my kids they can’t play in the rain, none of this is fun to talk about … but during periods of extremely high airborne radiation releases, people might want to keep their kids out of heavy rain.

Radiative iodine is concentrated in milk. Therefore, when high doses of radioiodine are being released into the air, we might want to avoid milk altogether for a couple of weeks or so. (Radioactive iodine has a half-life of only 8 days. So avoiding local milk for a couple of weeks should help keep you safe.)

Radiation also bioaccumulates in mushrooms. So it might be wise to consider avoiding mushrooms grown in Japan, Hawaii or on the Pacific Coast.

During periods of heavy radiation, you should also rinse your vegetables well before eating them, to wash off any hot particles which may have landed on them.

Evacuation is the most drastic step to take to protect yourself. World renowned physicist Michio Kaku told his Japanese family and friends years ago that they should leave if they can. Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen and physician Helen Caldicott have both said that people should evacuate the Northern Hemisphere if one of the Fukushima fuel pools collapses. Gundersen said:

Move south of the equator if that ever happened, I think that’s probably the lesson there.

The Fukushima pools have not collapsed at this point, and so we’re not suggesting that people leave Hawaii or the West Coast. Indeed, the entire focus of this essay is minimizing risks in our own homes.

Even if you’re hit with large doses of radiation, there are compounds you can take to help protect yourself …

Potassium iodide protects against damage from radioactive iodine, but should only be taken if one is directly exposed to high levels of radioactive iodine, and you should never exceed the recommended dosage.

Other specific substances have been proven to protect against poisoning from exposure to other specific types of radiation:

  • Prussian blue for cesium
  • DTPA for plutonium, americium and curium
  • Sodium bicarbonate (i.e. baking soda) for uranium

These are not candy, and can have their own side effects. So only take them – under guidance from your physician – if you are exposed to high levels of radiation.

You should also make sure you get enough fiber in your diet: Some types of radiation are excreted the old-fashioned way … by pooping them out. For example, prussian blue binds with cesium, and then you excrete it through your bowels. If you’re constipated, you won’t be able to get rid of the radiation. So it’s important to stay regular.

For a more complete discussion of commonly-accepted scientific consensus on different prevention and treatment options, please review the Army’s Medical Consequences of Radiological and Nuclear Weapons and the The American Association of Physicists In Medicine’s Medical Management of Radionuclide Internal Contamination.

* As noted above, you should not take potassium iodide supplements unless you are exposed to high doses of radioactive iodine, because it can damage some people’s health. For chronic low-dose exposure, a daily, baseline level of mineral iodine is much healthier. Potassium iodide is found in most common table salt. However, levels are not uniform, and a lot of “iodized” salt has less than advertised. Here is a list of some iodine-rich foods. And see this.

** After the U.S. military conducted above-ground nuclear tests on Bikini Island, scientists found that adding potassium to the soil reduced the uptake of radioactive cesium by the plants.

John Harte – Professor at the University of California at Berkeley in Energy and Resources and Ecosystem Sciences, a PhD physicist who previously taught physics at Yale, a recipient of the Pew Scholars Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, the Leo Szilard prize from the American Physical Society, and who has served on six National Academy of Sciences Committees and authored over 170 scientific publications, including six books – notes:

Marine fish are usually about 100 times lower in cesium-137 than are freshwater fish because potassium, which is more abundant in seawater, blocks uptake of cesium by marine organisms.

The same may be true in mammals. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry notes:

Cesium is a close chemical analogue of potassium. Cesium has been shown to compete with potassium for transport through potassium channels and can also substitute for potassium in activation of the sodium pump and subsequent transport into the cell.

***

After 20 days on the diets, rats receiving supplemental potassium had body burdens of 137 Cs that were one-half those of the rats not receiving supplemental potassium. This finding shows that supplemental potassium reduces the uptake and increases the elimination of ingested 137 Cs.

And some physicians believe that the same is true with people, Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt – a medical doctor with a masters degree in public health, on the Faculty at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, editor of the best-seller Food and Nutrients in Disease Management – says that the same is true for humans.  As does Gabriel Cousins – another medical doctor with an eclectic background – who writes:

To protect yourself from cesium poisoning, consume plenty of high potassium foods ….These foods should provide all you need to block cesium 137 uptake.

Disclaimer: The material contained in this essay is for general informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. You should consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before making any decisions about whether or not to take any of the foods, herbs, supplements, substances or actions mentioned herein.

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