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Fallout and Radiation
in Food
after a Nuclear War
Bruce M. Beach, bio

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Social and Economic Recovery
After Nuclear Holocaust

Table of Contents:

Overview: Layman's overview on Radiation in Food.

Food: Shorter letter on radiation in Food

Radiation in Food: Explanation by a microbiologist

Risk: Radiation Risk and Ethics

Measurement: Manual of food quality control - radionuclides in food

Milk: Removal of Strontium 89 and 90 from milk

Potatoes: How to remove radiation from potatoes

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Social and Economic Recovery
After Nuclear Holocaust

Table of Contents
Layman's overview on Radiation in Food
(Techniques for Agriculture Recovery -
After Nuclear Holocaust)

by Bruce Beach, Radiological Scientific Officer

Prolog: Nature of the problem

Short Term: The Short Term Problem

Survival: The Short Term Solutions

Long Term: The Long Term Problem

Solutions: The long term solutions.

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Radiation in Food
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Prolog: Nature of the Problem

Radiation does not harm food. Radiation in food is very harmful. One needs to make the distinction. Without entering into the debate, about whether microwave ovens harmed food, destroyed vitamins, etc., the irradiation of food in general, and by most researchers, has not been considered as being harmful. In fact it has been found to been very beneficial, for the same reasons that we cook and preserve any food.

However, radiation in food is very harmful because it is then absorbed by the consumer. Radioactive particles give off energy. This energy weakens, destroys, or otherwise harms cells. One might picture it as little microwave ovens, inside the body, cooking it from the inside. What is cooked are the cells in the body. Just like with any burn, there may be degrees. Sometimes a cell is destroyed completely and if enough are destroyed then we become sick, weaken, or die. Other times, radiation may only damage or deform the cells. The deformed cells may multiply, causing cancer which is one of the main longterm concerns about radiation.

Radioactive particles are isotopes of minerals that the body naturally seeks and absorbs. We call them isotopes because in the nuclear chain reaction process they have obtained one or more extra electrons. In this state they are unstable and will eventually give off the electron as energy and thus return to their stable state. It is that energy which is harmful.

Radioactive isotopes give off their energy in a random fashion but at a predictable rate. That is like saying that everyone in a population will die within 100 years. This we can predict with high probability and build mortality tables to that effect although we don't know when any one individual will die. The same is true with isotopic atoms. We know that a population of them will give off all their energy in a predictable time, although we do not know when any one atom will give off its energy.

Just as different species of animals have different average lifetimes, for example shorter for fruit flies and dogs than for people, and longer for some species of parrots and turtles than people, so also do the isotopes of different minerals have different average lifetimes. For some isotopes, indeed most, the average lifetime is very short by human lifetime standards. The isotopes last only milliseconds, or less. Gone in far less that the blink of an eye. Their energy makes up what we call the initial radiation of an atomic blast. Most other radioactive particles decay, that is to say lose their energy in a matter of minutes, hours, or days. They linger around to cause the problems that we see in fallout and are the reason that one needs a fallout shelter for a few weeks after a nuclear war. But even with the latter, most of the radiation is gone in a couple of weeks.

The length of time that it takes a quantity of a radioactive isotope to lose half of its energy is what we call its half life. This can very from milliseconds to a great many years. As mentioned, for most isotopes it is all over in milliseconds, but the ones that we are most concerned about take decades. Let us supposed that the half life of an isotope was 50 years (there are a couple that approximate that) and that we had a sufficient quantity of it that it was giving off 100 rads. Then in 50 years the radioactive source would be giving off 50 rads. In a hundred years it would be giving off 25 rads. In a hundred and fifty years it would be giving off about 12 rads. In two hundred years it would be giving off 6 rads.

For all practical purposes that source would be depleted, that is to say giving off less than 1 rad in three hundred years. As to when it would reach zero that is sort of the old Greek problem of when the bear would get out of the cave. Starting at the back of the cave it has to go half of the distance first to get out. Then at the half-way point it has to go half of the remaining distance to get out. And then at the quarter-way point, half that distance again. And so on. Logically, (this is the problem with logic and math) we can say the bear will never get out of the cave. It is what we call an asyntopic problem.

So there may always be some residual radiation from a nuclear war. Indeed, some people have speculated that there is already residual radiation on the planet from pre-historic nuclear wars. We also get background radiation from the cosmos. So radiation is always with us. Indeed, some radiation may not be harmful. It may even be necessary. Just as arsenic is considered a deadly poison, nevertheless, without any arsenic in your body - you would equally well die. Enough water and you will drown. Not enough and you will die of dehydration. Balance in all things. Probably regarding radiation also. Experiments have shown that people who live at higher altitudes and who therefore receive more natural radiation from the sun and cosmos, have lower incidence of cancer.

But here, we are talking about too much radiation. And most seriously, radiation that has gotten right into our systems through food. As before, a little bit may not hurt, but we are talking about lots. How it happens is this. The food chains filters in the radiation because it is trying to concentrate the minerals and can't tell the difference between a radioactive isotope of a particular mineral, and its non-radioactive isotope variety.

As an example, let us look at iodine. Too much iodine in the body is poisonous. Too little is also very detrimental. The thyroid absorbs iodine for the body. Because we naturally get iodine from the food we eat and because it is generally added to salt, there is little likelihood that today (although in previous centuries it was a problem) that one gets too little. A nuclear explosion creates isotopes of iodine (I-131 and I-132). These have a half life of about 8 days. This means that it will hang around for about a month after a nuclear explosion. That is the reason that we take Potassium Iodide pills, for a month after a nuclear explosion, so that the thyroid will be loaded with iodine and won't accept anymore iodine during that period.

But here is what happened, during the atomic experiments, when people didn't know about this and didn't take the potassium iodide. The radioactive particles were carried up into atmosphere an settled down of the milk shed of southern Utah. There were so few particles that the radiation meters couldn't measure them. However, they washed down into the soil and the bacteria in the soil, seeking minerals, absorbed them it prefence to other inert matter. The lichen in the soil, also seeking minerals, then absorbed the baceria. These were further absorbed the legumes and higher grasses. Then a cow came along and ate the grass. Each organism concentratedi the minerals because that is what it was really seeking.

Indeed, within the body, certain organs filter out certain minerals also. The bone marrow seeks calcium and such, as do the mamamary glands which produce milk. As an aside, concentration of radioactive particles in the bone marrow causes leukemia, actually one of the more prevalent forms of cancer caused by radiation. And leukemia destroys the body's immune system which makes it fatal because of all sorts of causes. However, to continue with our journey of a radioactive particle. This particular one, particularly ended up in the milk. When the milk was drank by a nursing mother, her system too concentrated the mineral iodine, especially in her milk and she thus passed along the radioactive isotopes to her child with their mother's milk. Finally the child's biological system concentrated the iodine in its thyroid and radioactive isotope had by now become so concentrated that if we held a radiation detector up by the child's neck near the thyroid - it buzzed like a rattlesnake.

The radiation had become very detrimental to the children, and there was a high incidence of mental retardation in the St. George area of southern Utah as a result of the atomic experiments in Nevada. Indeed, scientific studies showed that approximately eleven thousand cases of cancer occurred in the general population of the United States, as the result of nuclear testing. Before we get too excited about that, one must remember that about 20 times that number of cases were caused by desired uses of medical and dental x-ray and other sought after uses of radiation.

Yes, radiation causes cancer. So does water cause drownings. And automobiles cause much greater numbers of fatalities that both put together. Before automobiles horse accidents also caused many human deaths. In all these matters, one has to weigh the relative social benefits before they dispense with radiation, water, automobiles or horses. Every activity, whether manufacturing or mining, whether production or sport, has its attendant risk. Pollution from burning coal has caused much more in the way of cancer than industrial radiation ever has, so let us keep things in perspective.

The issues, in this essay, and in the accompanying scientific papers, are how much radiation we will be dealing with for how long a period of time - along with the techniques of dealing with it.

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Short: The Short Term Problem

In the short run after a nuclear war the problem is fallout. Fallout that prevents work outside. Fallout that gets onto food. Fallout that contaminates the soil and prevents the immediate planting of new crops. Fallout that kills the animals. Fallout that contaminates the water and streams. Fallout that blows about in the very air itself.

But fortunately all this is a short term problem of just a few weeks and the radiation in the fallout will decay. Following that, one will then have to deal with the problem of long term residual radiation. However, that is a subject for another section. The problem being discussed here is short term radiation and in the next section the short term solutions for dealing with it.

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Survival: The Short Term Solutions

The good news is that food that was grown before the nuclear event, does not become radioactive. As long as the radioactive particles that fall on it are removed then it is perfectly okay. Wash off a banana - then peel and eat it. Wash off an egg - crack it open and it is ready to cook. These principles apply to any fruits and vegetables. Scrub the dirt off the potatoes and they will be perfectly fine. Open any can or closed container and the food will be unaffected. A case of tomatoes could have been sitting outside in the fallout and all one would need is to wash off the can and open it.

Some food may take a little more care. Grain stored in a grainery where dust can have gotten in may need to be washed. Animals may have died or gotten sick from the radiation and needed to be slain, but so long as care is taken in handling the exposed part of the animal the meat will still be okay. We are only talking about immediately after the event. Animals that have had an opportunity to forage in fallout contaminated areas will assimilate the radiation into their bodies and also into products such as eggs and milk.

So, this is the good news. Immediately after a nuclear war, any food that is still around and that would otherwise be edible, will still be edible. If it has spoiled from lack of refrigeration, or some other cause - then that is another matter. However, in rural areas that have storage facilities there should not be any lack of food of some type. In fact there may well be more food than survivors, but eventually they are going to need a new crop - and that is an entirely different matter, covered in a separate section.

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Long: The Long Term Problem

The long term problem of radiation after a nuclear war arises from the fact that some isotopes, as explained in a previous section, have half-lives of decades. Those isotopes which have half-lives of centuries are not really a problem because they give off so little energy during a human lifetime that they are irrelevant.

Neither are the isotopes that we are talking about an external bodily threat because they are usually found in very small quantities. However, because they are concentrated by living organisms, and because in food they become internal to the organism, they can be a serious health concern in food. The two most serious problems, long term, are isotopes of cesium and strontium, both of which in themselves are desirable minerals for many living organisms. The organism is unable to distinguish between a beneficial and a harmful isotope and will therefore equally absorb those which are harmful.

Exactly what quantities are of serious concern and how they may be detected and measured are explained in technical papers in this series. The next section will explain, in generalities, how the problem can be dealt with. At present there is no coterie of professionals trained, equipped or experienced to deal with the technical issues. These technicians will have to be developed from individuals with related technical training - after a nuclear holocaust - and it is for that reason that the necessary technical papers are provided here.

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Solutions: The Long Term Solutions

The long term problem of radiation in food is indeed a horrendous one, but not an insurmountable one. We are used to processing food and to preserving it. This is just an additional step like testing for bacteria or other spoilage. Unfortunately, it is not one that is as easily done at home as other food preparation methods have been in the past. Still one can take care to make sure that radiation does not get into their home produced crops - in the first place.

Some of the necessary procedures may at first seem arduous but that is just a matter of custom. Because of radiation, there may be areas of land which one will wish to avoid in growing crops. But really, that is no different than today where some areas are avoided because they are too rocky and others because they are too swampy.

Some plants prefer other minerals rather than cesium and strontium. Those plants and soil with the alternate minerals, or fertilizer containing them, can be used. These again are matters of expertise that need to be developed in each local soil and plant area, so while information assisting those determinations is presented in the accompanying technical papers it is a matter beyond the generalities of this essay.

I have often stated that there are long term strategies for dealing with radiation in food. Many times I have been asked to list examples in one place and so to satisfy that request - I do so now: