Crisis in Japan raises fears in US

Worries about radiation ingrained since Hiroshima

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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Dr. Eva Guinan was cheering on her son at a basketball game Sunday when the conversation in the bleachers turned to uncertainty about the risks of radiation exposure from the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Were the trace amounts of radioactive iodine being detected in Massachusetts rainwater, carried here by the wind, a cause for concern? As the situation keeps changing in Japan, how could anyone know whether to trust official statements about the level of the threat?

“There was a fair amount of discussion of how distressing it was,’’ said Guinan, a researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who studies ways to treat radiation exposure. “I heard it from a couple people. It’s hard to grasp what’s going on. It’s hard to feel confident they’re being given the right information.’’

State public health officials and radiation specialists have been firm: People should not be fearful or change their behavior after small amounts of radioactive iodine were detected in rainwater. But the grip that the evolving nuclear crisis in Japan has had on the public imagination illustrates just how deep-seated our anxiety is about anything “nuclear.’’

The public’s sensitivity about radiation is so acute that state officials called an unusual Sunday press conference to let people know there was no health concern. The very low levels of radioactive iodine detected in rainwater would not be a threat even if rainwater were to be directly ingested, health officials stressed. It will be further diluted before it enters the drinking-water supply, and radioactive iodine has been undetectable so far in samples from reservoirs.

“There is a general concern to be as transparent as possible, and I think that’s part of what we’re seeing . . . that the public has a right to be honestly informed of these things,’’ said James Connell, a physicist at the University of New Hampshire. “But I hope the public will also take the trouble to be informed of what it really means, rather than overreacting.’’

High doses of radiation exposure like those received by the workers and emergency responders during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster can be deadly. But in daily life, people experience low-level radiation exposure from natural sources.

Chris Martel, director of health physics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that if a person were to drink a liter of contaminated rainwater at the level measured by the state, the dose they would receive would be less than the radiation a person receives in a day from natural sources. He said it would be about one-10th of the exposure from a flight to California.

Images of the destruction and suffering caused by the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan in World War II have powerfully shaped the perception of nuclear risk. Although many people may not know how fission works, nuclear energy and radiation exposure are part of the popular consciousness, shaped by cultural references that range from “The Incredible Hulk’’ to the nuclear power plant in “The Simpsons.’’

“Nuclear things carry a historical freight that is not carried by other technologies that people are more familiar with,’’ said Spencer Weart, a science historian and author of the book “Nuclear Fear.’’ “We are worried about radioactive things because they can cause cancer and genetic defects, and so can chemicals. . . . But chemicals are familiar; radiation is mysterious, scary.’’

As a result, the cancer risk from radiation is often overestimated by people. For example, according to Dr. John Boice, a radiation epidemiologist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, even among 86,000 survivors of the atomic blasts that ended World War II, just 500 of the eventual 10,000 cancer deaths are attributed to radiation exposure.

Radiation can also seem more exotic and frightening than chemicals or other harmful substances because it is invisible and odorless. Still, it can be detected by sensitive technology at levels that cause no harm.

Late last week, Aaron Wallace, emergency management director for the town of Plymouth, said that in the past, a handful of residents would trickle in each year, requesting potassium iodide pills, which the town stocks because it is home to the Pilgrim nuclear plant. The pills block the absorption of radioactive iodine, one of the types of radioisotopes that would be released in the event of a nuclear disaster. But over the past week, Wallace said, his office has had more than 300 calls or visits from residents seeking them.

What was alarming, he said, was the pervasive misinformation about what the pills can do, even after people had received specific instructions.

“It’s very uneasy to hand someone something and say, ‘Here’s the state’s distribution policy, here’s the insert that goes with the medication, here’s the FAQ. Please do not take this at this time — in the event of an emergency only,’ ’’ Wallace said. “And still after they have this information, we still have people say, ‘OK, when can I take this?’ ’’

David Ropeik, author of the book “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,’’ said that anxiety is shaped in part by how much control they feel they have over a situation.

People may feel anxious about radiation from a natural disaster, he said, but not when they deliberately do activities that increase radiation exposure, such as taking a trans-Atlantic flight, or getting an X-ray or CT scan. “Our perception of risk is never just a matter of the facts,’’ Ropeik said. “It’s how those facts feel.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at top stories on Twitter

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