Images from Japan continue to sadden and shock us. Over 12,000 are confirmed dead or missing due to the earthquake and tsunami, and that number will likely rise. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes. I’m having a hard time finding recent numbers on those without water and electricity, but all the stories state that this continues to be a major problem. The magnitude of what has already been lost, not to mention the serious challenges that remain to get food and water to everyone, seems overwhelming.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, some media outlets, not content with honestly reporting a cataclysmic disaster, have irresponsibly panicked and misled their viewers.

I want to be very clear about this next part. No matter what happens to the reactors in Fukushima, radiation from those reactors cannot harm people on the US West Coast.

The reason for this is simple; the effects of radiation (and of everything else) on the human body depend completely on the dose. Nothing terrible happens to us when we get a chest X-ray. In fact a chest X-ray gives us the same amount of radiation that we get from the normal environment in 10 days. If we were to receive the radiation from 500 chest X-rays at the same time we would be nauseated and fatigued and would lose our hair. The radiation from ten thousand simultaneous chest X-rays would cause bleeding. Forty thousand would cause death.

Chernobyl, the worst nuclear reactor accident ever, caused health problems only to people living in the vicinity of the reactor. Three Mile Island, the worst reactor accident in the US, caused no detectable health problems. The difference was the dose. Much more radiation was released in Chernobyl. (See link below for a fascinating NPR story on the long term effects of radiation around Chernobyl.)

The Fukushima reactors won’t release as much radiation as Chernobyl. The reactor design is much more modern, and we know much more now than they did then about how to prevent and manage meltdowns. Even in the very worst case, radiation would only harm those who are close enough to absorb a significant dose. Tokyo, about 150 miles away, is perfectly safe.

So the US West Coast is really not in any danger. That’s because the Fukushima reactors are on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean is what scientists call very very big.

Several concerned patients have asked me about potassium iodide tablets. You don’t need them. If you’ve already bought them, don’t take them. The LA Dept. of Health released a very helpful advisory (link below). Please take a few minutes to read it. It details the many reasons that potassium iodide would not be helpful and might be harmful. It also has excellent common-sense advice about what to assemble in your emergency kit.

The fact that California pharmacies have experienced a run on potassium iodide is a shameful testament to our scientific illiteracy and to our sensationalistic broadcast media. If we panic when there is no danger, how will we handle an actual emergency? Will we be able to display the stoic resolve that the Japanese have shown?

The worst aspect of the focus on Fukushima is that it distracts us from two much bigger stories. The first is that hundreds of thousands in Japan need help. See the link below to the American Red Cross and please consider donating. The second story is that we will eventually have a large earthquake here, and we’re not ready.

Learn more:

County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health Advisory: LA County residents cautioned to AVOID ingesting potassium iodide (with thanks to my colleagues Dr. Noam Drazin and Dr. Gene Liu for the link)

NPR story: Chernobyl’s Hot Zone Holds Some Surprises

Donate to assist victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunami through the American Red Cross


In last week’s post I wrote “I can’t remember the last time that a natural disaster caused hundreds of deaths in an advanced country.” Of course, that’s boneheaded. My friend Bob C. reminded me that in 2005 Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,800 people in the US. I appreciate the correction.