Radiation And Its Effects

Dr. Jeff Eckerd
Acting program manager for Indoor and radiological Health with the DOH

How did you end up in the radiation field?

I’ve been working with the Department of Health for a little over 21 years. I started in the noise section and then became an indoor air quality specialist. After the events of 9/11, our program, with the help of Homeland Security funding, was able to field a radiological emergency response team. At that time I became a member of the response team. The radiation section supervisor position became available in 2005, and I’ve been in that position ever since.

How does the nuclear reactor situation in Japan affect Hawaii?

The nuclear reactors are having various issues because of events associated with the earthquake and the tsunami. Early on, there were some fires and explosions that emitted radioactive particles into the air. We expected to see some radioactive material reaching Hawaii because this had happened in the past, like the event in Chernobyl.

Because Hawaii is more than 4,000 miles away, we expected that, through dispersion and diffusion, the amounts we were going to get here would be trace amounts and would not be anything that would have a significant health impact.

Regardless of that, we decided that we needed to ramp up our monitoring.

We’ve been working in partnership with EPA, FDA, CDC and a number of other federal, state and local organizations to ensure that we have all of the proper monitoring in place to ensure the safety of our people.

Are the tons of radioactive water that spilled into the ocean cause to worry?

Some of the materials are very heavy and will stay localized around Japan. Some of it may get here in trace amounts. All indications would be that because there’s going to be so much diffusion and dilution throughout the ocean, we don’t expect it to be very high. In fact, it may not even be measurable. We do have protocols in place to measure background and ambient levels of radiation at various beaches throughout the state to make sure there are no unsafe levels.

How do trace amounts of radiation get here, and how dangerous is it to our food, water and air?

Most of it is probably coming via air currents. The material gets into the air and gets into the environment via fallout and precipitation. We collect rainwater and send it to EPA for analysis. That is one indicator of how much is actually getting onto the ground.

Environmental health specialists Geoffrey Lau and James Toma perform a tactical air sampling. Nathalie Walker photo nwalker@midweek.com

We also are monitoring and testing finished drinking water in conjunction with the department’s Safe Drinking Water branch. Rainfall takes a long time to reach the water table, so we don’t expect any elevated levels, but we will be monitoring that. These are programs that have been in place with the EPA for 20-plus years, but we will likely be ramping them up as a precautionary measure.

Radioactivity in milk is a bit different. Cows ingest feed that may have been exposed to small amounts of radioactive particles in the air and end up in the milk. We have a milk-sampling program with the EPA to make sure that there are no unsafe levels of radioactive materials in milk.

Should we be concerned about the radiation that’s been found in Hawaii?

Based on what we’ve seen so far and based on what we predict, there is no indication that we’ll get any harmful levels of radiation here.

I think people were concerned that there would be this big radiation cloud that would come over and we’re not going to have time to react. But really what we expect is just trace amounts trickling in, and that’s why we are constantly monitoring, not just here, but also the events as they unfold in Japan.

Do trace amounts stay forever, and does it make people sick?

We look at certain types of radionuclides that are associated with nuclear reactor events. Luckily some of them are very short-lived – they have very short half-lives. Things that we’ve been seeing like Iodine-131, Tellurium-132, Xenon-133, a lot of those have half-lives of hours to days. They’ll decay and be indistinguishable from our natural background radiation within a relatively short period. Others we track for a longer period of time because they have longer half-lives, like Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years.

How do we protect or prepare ourselves against radiation?

Look at the websites of public health agencies. We have a very good website at hawaii.gov/health. On the top we have a link to the events of the Japan nuclear reactors. We give all of the information on the monitoring data that we have. We try to update it at least on a weekly basis to let the people of Hawaii know what we’re seeing.

At this point, we are well below any need for protective action. We highly recommend that people not take potassium iodide because some people have severe allergic reactions and there’s no indication that they need to take that at this time. Our website helps quell a lot of fears. People want to know: Is it coming here? Yes. Is it small? Yes. Am I safe? Yes. That’s the message we’re trying to get across.

Is potassium iodide what was selling out at stores because people heard it could protect them from nuclear fallout?

Yes. There are only a few agents that are actually approved for use as medication for protection from or treatment of nuclear radiation sickness. We’re not even close to getting to those levels of having to take it. We don’t want people going out and buying something that’s not approved that they think is going to protect them, but it really doesn’t. We are prepared; we have protocols in place should the need arise. We don’t think that’s going to be necessary, but we have access to the strategic national stockpile and we would distribute things to people as needed.

Within the DOH, we coordinate with our Sanitation and Food and Drug branches to look at milk and local produce. We work with our Safe Drinking Water branch and Clean Water branch to check the water. We work with Disease Outbreak Control Division to look for possible human illness and assurance of medical supplies. We’re keeping our eyes open for possible concerns, even if they are unlikely, to make sure our state is well-prepared. So far we have only received minuscule amounts of radioactive material in Hawaii. It’s safe to go in the water, it’s safe to drink the water, it’s safe to eat the food here. I have family here too, so I want to protect them just like I take care of everybody else. I take pride in my job and making sure we’re protecting the health of the people of this state.