Media Hysteria And Radioactivity

by Michael R. Fox PhD, Hawaii Reporter

The US media continues to issue 40 year old hysterical scary one-liners about radioactivity, especially as they relate to the Fukushima reactor failures in Japan.  It is as if the media have yet to discover natural and man-made radioactivity and that many of these are a natural part of our environment.

Natural radioactivity was discovered by Becquerel in 1896, 115 years ago.  Over the intervening 115 years, unknown to the astute media, many more radioactive substances (called isotopes) have been discovered.

According to a recent edition (2005) of the Trilinear Chart of the Nuclides there are now more than 4000 such isotopes known to science (essentially none known to the media and the public), with only an estimated 250 of them being stable (non-radioactive).   Each of these isotopes tells a story of scientific advancement and ingenuity.  Many involved with these discoveries have won Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry.

One of these isotopes, iodine-131 (I-131) was discovered in the late 1930s by Glenn Seaborg and Jack Livingood.  Since it has been the repeated subject of hysterical media coverage,  let us examine I-131 a bit more.

Iodine is an essential element for humans since the thyroid needs iodine to manufacture the hormone thyroxine, which is used by the body in many subsequent biochemical processes.  The importance of iodine is significant.  We get iodine through our dietary intake.  Both dietary deficiencies and dietary excesses of iodine cause their own sets of thyroid problems. Such dietary problems were discovered in the 1800s.

The discovery of the radioactive iodine-131 opened a new world in diagnosing thyroid diseases, which turned this isotope into a true workhorse in the world of nuclear medicine. The medical utility and life-saving benefits of this amazing isotope has escaped notice by the media for more than 70 years.  When radioactive I-131 is introduced into humans, it is absorbed by the thyroid gland and used as a precise, medical, diagnostic tool, without the need for surgery.  This means that many thyroid problems can be detected and measured simply by using a clear image of the thyroid gland, thanks to the images produced.

Technology involving the introduction of radioactive I-131 into humans has been used since the 1940s, tens of thousands of times annually around the world.  The administered doses of I-131 are much larger than the I-131 hysterically reported by the media from Fukushima and this media mythology can be scary if enough history, science, and medicine are ignored.  Scientists such as Zbigniew Jaworowski have written copiously on these subjects.

Have we learned anything about the health effects of I-131 on those thyroid patients?  Certainly.  Several epidemiological studies have been conducted on patients who received I-131 for diagnostic purposes of their thyroids.  The numbers of patients studied are in the tens of thousands, producing highly reliable findings.  There was no statistically significant increase in thyroid cancers in adults or children.  In fact, the opposite effect was observed.  In a Swedish study of more than 30,000 patients, there was a 38% decrease in thyroid cancer incidence as compared with the non-irradiated cohort.  In a British study a 17% deficit in incidence of all studied cancers was found.  It should be noted that the I-131 doses used in these thyroid studies were significantly higher than those around Chernobyl, and hugely higher (by factors of thousands) than those around the Western United States.

In 1976 construction began on the three Palo Verde large nuclear reactors.  These are located about 50 miles west of Phoenix, and supply electricity to more than 4,000,000 homes.  So how are 3 large reactors cooled in the Arizona desert?

These reactors use the secondary sewage effluent from the sewage system of Phoenix and surrounding communities.  This “gray water” is pumped through several stages of water cleaning systems to produce some extremely clean cooling water.  These reactors use and recycle some 20,000,000,000 gallons of such water annually.  During the initial stages of plant operations, radioactive I-131 was discovered coming INTO the plants from Phoenix.  It also seemed to arrive in pulses several days of the week.  How could this be?

An investigation found that Phoenix area endocrinologists were performing their thyroid diagnostics on thyroid patients during a few days of the week.  Since these doses were low, the patients returned home after their thyroids were imaged.  Naturally, as humans they went back to their homes and urinated, which of course, included the residual I-131 all over Phoenix.  This radioactive I-131 (very low levels, but very detectable) had been collected by the Phoenix sewage treatment systems and pumped 50 miles west to the Palo Verde reactors.

It is well past the time when the media began being truthful about such radioactivity and I-131 in particular.  Since I-131 has been a workhorse in nuclear medicine for nearly 70 years, and  administered to human patients by the thousands with minimal health effects , isn’t it time for the media to do their homework and report accurately?

Michael R. Fox, Ph.D., a nuclear scientist and a science and energy resource for Hawaii Reporter and a science analyst for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is retired and now lives in Eastern Washington. A former Hawaii resident, he has nearly 40 years experience in the energy field. He has also taught chemistry and energy at the University level. His interest in the communications of science has led to several communications awards, hundreds of speeches, and many appearances on television and talk shows. He can be reached via email at

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