Tiffin Project

Radiation Alert, and What You Can Do…

by Todd Caldecott on March 15, 2011

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There is mounting concern that radiation leaking from nuclear power plants could affect human health.  It is very difficult to get solid information, but reports I have seen indicate that the radioactive isotopes of concern are iodine 131, strontium 90, cesium 137 and plutonium 239.  Iodine 131 is the most immediate concern because iodine forms the structural basis of thyroxine, a hormone synthesized by the thyroid gland.  Free iodine is taken up by the thyroid and stored until it is utilized or otherwise eliminated from the body.  Given the thyroid’s affinity for iodine, radioactive iodine is rapidly taken up by the thyroid, where it emits radiation (beta/gamma particles) that promotes local cell mutations that can lead to thyroid cancer. In acute exposure to iodine 131 people are counseled to take potassium iodide to fill up the thyroid with iodine so that the radioactive iodine is not absorbed instead.  While this does protect against specific damage to the thyroid, radioactive iodine still has generalized toxic effects, and taking potassium iodide does not protect against this. The good news, if there is any in such a circumstance, is that iodine 131 has a half-life of 8 days, so by the time any radioactive iodine makes its way to North America blown by the wind, much of it will have begun to decay into xenon. In other words, taking iodine supplements in large amounts at this time isn’t necessary, and can have very serious consequences for your health. Symptoms of iodine overdose or excess include a metallic taste in the mouth, rashes, depression, acne, headaches, nausea, lethargy and hypothyroidism (called the Wolff-Chaikoff effect).

Ok, that was the good news.  The bad news is that while iodine 131 has a half-life of 8 days, strontium 90 and cesium 137 have half lives of 30 years, and plutonium has a half life of 24,000 years. Strontium 90 is an earth metal similar to calcium, and becomes incorporated into calcium-rich tissues such as bone. Cesium 137 is an alkaline metal similar to potassium, and displaces potassium as an electrolyte. And as far as plutonium goes, its just plain toxic. So if the nuclear situation deteriorates further and we are exposed to radiation, we are well on the road to being fucked. Estimates right now on the scale of being fucked place the Japanese meltdown to a status less than Chernobyl, but as the Japanese reactors contain more fuel overall, the overall risk is much greater. Right now there is a lot of skepticism on what the media and government are saying and how much radiation is actually being emitted. This is an issue that extends far beyond Japan however. In the last century we have exposed ourselves and the planet to unprecedented levels of radiation, from both above-ground and below-ground nuclear tests, to the over 442 nuclear power plants worldwide, each not only producing the energy that feeds our desperate economy but generates tons of radioactive waste each year. Today I see that futures in nuclear energy are dropping and money is shifting to companies that specialize in green power generation. Time to follow the money.

^ A massive column of smoke from Fukushima Daiichii nuclear plant after a hydrogen explosion at the plant's No. 3 unit on Monday

Although traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicine have nothing to say about radiation sickness per se, a quick search on the database of the National Institute of Health (PubMed) provides data on many different medicinal plants that have radioprotective effects. These include common garden plants such as mint and holy basil (tulsi), to more specialized herbs such as ginseng and amla. From a therapeutic perspective all of these herbs have detoxifying properties, enhancing cellular metabolism in tissues such as the lymphatic system, liver and kidneys, often coupled with profound antioxidant effects that protect against mutation. Many of these herbs are also used in the treatment of cancer. Examples include red clover, cleavers, barberry, sarsaparilla, guaiacum wood and medicinal mushrooms (e.g. maitake, reishi, chaga).  Foods can also be used to promote detoxification and inhibit cancer including the alliums (e.g. garlic, onion) as well as most leafy greens such as the brassicas (e.g. cabbage, kale, rapini) and chenopodiums (e.g. beets, chard, lambsquarters), not to mention all the lovely garden herbs that nature just magically supplies us, such as chickweed, nettle and dandelion. Cilantro is another particularly useful herb that promotes detoxification, along with other exotic herbs including ginger, turmeric and Chinese brown mushrooms (shiitake). In my upcoming book “Food As Medicine” I have many delicious recipes that incorporate these foods and herbs you can use to support your health.

Perhaps the most obvious candidate food candidate for radioprotection is seaweed which contains naturally high amounts of iodine, anywhere from 16 mcg/g in nori to 8165 mcg/g in a salt substitute made from processed kelp granules (Laminaria digitata). To protect the thyroid against iodine 131 the WHO recommends a daily dose of 130 mg of potassium iodide to saturate the thyroid. Given an average amount of 0.5% iodine in seaweed, you would have to eat a little more than 25 grams of your average seaweed to achieve a protective dose. But seaweeds also contain other constituents that protect against poisons, and in herbal medicine is considered one of the premier tonics in the treatment of cancer and metabolic disorders.  In particular, seaweed is abundant in insoluble fibers called alginates that help to bind up toxins in the gut for elimination, which could include radioactive particles that have been ingested through food and water. Related to the seaweeds are the algae including Chlorella, a blue-green algae first developed as a supplement in Japan, which has undergone serious investigation for its antitoxic, antioxidant and antitumor effects. Interestingly, the Japanese are the biggest consumers of not only Chlorella but also seaweed, suggesting that Japanese are way out in front when it comes to addressing the issues of radiation toxicity. Compared to them, we are totally unprepared – hopefully we can learn before it happens to us.

~ Todd Caldecott


{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Neil Wyles March 15, 2011 at 8:02 pm

Urbandiner has become the all encompassing website for my life.

Not only is it the place where I come to see Keith Talent carry on about all things food, Colter Jones about all things coffee, but now I can get all the advice I need for the upcoming end of the world………I thought I only had CNN for that.

Kathy Abascal March 16, 2011 at 9:04 am

Could you spell out the math. If my seaweed contains 1000 micrograms/gram and I eat 30 grams, I will get 30 000 micrograms which to me is 30 milligrams a bit shy of the 130 dose. Plus, if my seaweed is dried and cooked I may be looking at 100 micrograms/gram, with will give me 3 milligrams of I. Where am I going wrong? Kathy

toddcaldecott March 16, 2011 at 9:39 am

hi kathy

as stated, my calculations were based on an avg. iodine content of 0.5% dry weight, i.e. 26 g x 0.5% = 130 mg

Peg Hicks March 16, 2011 at 10:50 am

So I’m taking 75mg of thyroid medicine daily , so am I good?

toddcaldecott March 16, 2011 at 10:57 am

hi peg

levothyroxine? no… this is a synthetic hormone that affects target cells, which in turn reduces TSH… but it doesn’t inhibit iodine uptake by the thyroid as far as i can tell

Barrett Jones March 16, 2011 at 11:13 am

How much protection will this tin foil hat provide?

paulkamon March 16, 2011 at 11:15 am

In your case, Barrett. Lots.

Ed March 16, 2011 at 5:06 pm

What about iodine laden Islay Scotch? Can I drink copious amounts of that?

Jamie March 16, 2011 at 6:56 pm

I prefer my iodine through skin absorption…..so I’m wearing nori underpants.

toddcaldecott March 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm

@Ed – In the event the clouds of radiation appear, take thou
one ounce of bull kelp and one ounce of whiskey, once daily.

Karen Vaughan March 17, 2011 at 9:32 am

The problem is not only our own exposure, but the exposure of our food and water. So instead of getting a “normal” dose from food, we are getting increases from all over. Even if we stay indoors and shower after ambient exposure. As predators near the top of the food chain, we are subject to biomagnification. And the particles that lodge in our bones and fat will remain, bioaccumulating until our bones break down in the next 20,000 years. That takes a lot of digitata!

toddcaldecott March 17, 2011 at 2:54 pm

The question answered relates to acute radiation exposure, not chronic exposure to the plethora of toxins that we have been bioaccumulating over the last 100 years. I have no easy answer to this one, but yet I am not quite ready to throw in the towel and admit armageddon. I have three kids…

Andy Lee March 18, 2011 at 5:18 am

Todd, I’m with you. Prepare a bit for the worst, expect some kind of issue, and know that someday, we will die. Hopefully not until our kids are old enough to pay for the funeral. Meanwhile, it is unlikely on the East Coast US that we will need more than a dietary improvement for a few months to ward off the expected case scenarios, especially for kids. I grind shitaake into everything I can for them. they won’t eat mushrooms, if they knew they were eating them, but they’ll eat soups, stews, sauces, etc. so they get it that way. Also they LOVE goodies like organic blueberries and mint tea (mint from our garden, dang things have taken over!). Fruit smoothies with extra love in them work too. :D

Jolene Yukes March 18, 2011 at 4:17 pm

How did you determine that 0.5% is the average amount of iodine in seaweed by dry weight? Could you please cite the source that you consulted to come up with this figure?

toddcaldecott March 18, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Jolene – do a search for iodine, “Plants with a chosen chemical”, at Jim Duke’s database at the ARS: http://www.ars-grin.gov/duke/

toddcaldecott March 18, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Also like to introduce herbalist Ryan Drum’s website on seaweed, which also mentions something about the iodine content in the Laminarias:


Jolene Yukes March 20, 2011 at 7:02 pm

As you suggested, I searched for iodine on Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical website, and only one species of seaweed came up – Fucus vesiculosus, also known as kelp or bladderwrack – with an iodine content of 300-5,400 ppm. Average iodine content of this species would be 2850 ppm based on the range given.

I also looked up Ryan Drum’s article, “Sea Vegetables for Food and Medicine” based on the link that you provided. The two types of seaweed for which he gives data on iodine content are the following:

Laminaria spp. – up to 8000 ppm iodine
Nori – 15 ppm iodine

Averaging the two values gives approximately 4000 ppm. However, iodine data for just one or two types of seaweed is hardly representative of the wide range of iodine concentrations in edible seaweed species.

Could you please explain how you came up with an average of 0.5% iodine content by dry weight for seaweed? I am searching for reliable sources of nutrition information for sea vegetables.

Also, in your comments on this article, you indicated that you used the value of 130 mg iodine to calculate a radioprotective dose of seaweed comparable to KI prophylaxis to prevent thyroid uptake of radioactive iodide. However, the iodide content of an adult daily dose of emergency potassium iodide medication is approximately 99.4 mg, not 130 mg. (Based on composition stoichiometry, the percent composition of iodide in KI is 76.45%.)

toddcaldecott March 21, 2011 at 2:06 am

Dear Jolene – as you correctly state the iodine content in edible seaweeds varies considerable, a fact which I stated in the post and referenced in Tea et al 2004. Apart from this variability, it would be difficult to know how much iodine one was getting from a given seaweed, particularly due to the fact that the the iodine content also varies depending on the part of the plant tested, as well as other issues I cited such as storage or cooking. Some sources suggest the iodine content of some Laminaria digitata can be as high as 1% (see: http://ir.lib.sfu.ca/bitstream/1892/7595/1/b16480090.pdf), and if we take your suggestion of an “average” iodine content of 0.4% and the total corrected iodine dose for prophylaxis at 100 mg, my suggestion of a dose of about 25 grams will provide exactly that. But it’s clearly not an exact science, given natural variability…

kelpconcerns March 21, 2011 at 10:18 pm

I have considered kelp as a supplement in the past but have never actually taken it since it is apparently high in arsenic and other contaminants. What about the toxins in the oceans that are contaminating the fish? Isn’t the kelp contaminated also? I only want to increase my iodine levels, not my arsenic and mercury levels! Any suggestions?

toddcaldecott March 22, 2011 at 1:32 am

hi kelpconcerns…

In 2007 there was study that reported a single case of a woman diagnosed with symptoms associated with arsenic toxicity, which the docs attributed to kelp supplements, but there is some dispute whether or not her symptoms were associated with arsenic or not (see: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2137100/). It is the only case reported in the literature, which is striking considering how many people eat seaweed and take kelp supplements. Arsenic is naturally found in seaweed but complexed with organic constituents, which is not the same as inorganic arsenic from contamination. When sourcing seaweed, make sure its harvested from pristine areas, away from industry and urban centers.

Maiyim Baron March 25, 2011 at 9:11 am

I am very sad to report that much of the sea vegetables consumed in the traditional Japanese diet was harvested from the now tsunami devasted Miyagi – Iwate shore. As of a week ago, 3/15, my local grocery was sold out of all fresh kombu kelp, wakame, mekabu etc. Also almost all dried sea vegies were gone – I got the last pack of nori. The up side of that is it means people know, and are eating them. i will look again to see if there are more supplies, but here in Yamagata, neighboring the stricken areas, we also have NO GAS so almost no deliveries of goods to the stores. We may need you guys to send us some of that stuff back over, in your generous relief donations of supplies. Won’t that be odd?!?

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