“Radiation given off by the Japanese reactor is rapidly blown out to sea.”
“Officials are distributing iodine to prevent radiation from entering the body.”
“Iodine is an antidote for radiation.”
Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
These statements being heard over U.S. network television news stations reflect the widespread ignorance and lack of science education in the United States.
First, “particles” that give off radiation can be blown out to sea, but radiation from Iodine 131 doesn’t get blown anywhere.
The second error is the nature of the damage from radioactive particles. Radioactive Iodine 131, one of the products in spent nuclear fuel after uranium fission, is an isotope (it has extra neutrons). It gives off radiation when it eventually drops down to “normal” Iodine 127.
Iodine is taken into the body from the environment by eating it in food, drinking it water or breathing it in air. It is then absorbed into our bloodstream, flows throughout our body, and is soon excreted by our kidneys. But only our thyroid gland has receptors to pick up significant amounts of this element. If it is the Iodine 131 that gives off radiation, then its concentration in the thyroid produces a hot spot of local beta radiation that can cause nearby cells to become cancerous.
This accumulation is prevented if a person first ingests normal non-radioactive Iodine 127. By loading our thyroid cells with harmless iodine, any radioactive iodine passes on through our body and is filtered out by the kidneys and lost in urine.
Therefore, normal iodine neither prevents radioactive iodine from entering the body nor is it an “antidote” for radiation “poisoning” as broadcast by many major network and cable stations, often voiced by a so-called “expert” who has not done his homework.
The error is not confined to one network and is not new. Dan Rather made the same error during the Chernobyl incident long ago on CBS. To a science teacher, such misinformation completely overwhelms what little radiation biology we can teach under today’s limited science curriculum.
Does it matter?
Lack of science understanding affects our attitude toward nuclear energy. Misconceptions about radiation run rampant among both proponents and opponents. Our public elections and decisions by our state and federal legislatures reflect widespread science ignorance.
Not so in Japan. The above science-stupid pronouncements on Japanese radio or television shows would bring overwhelming public correction. Similar to most developed countries (aside from the United States), Japanese students receive two to three times more science coursework in public schools. Physics classes begin much earlier because algebra is studied earlier. Their public understands isotopes and radiation.
But only a small percent of American students take physics and study radiation. Our National Science Education Standards are an embarrassment—an anemic curriculum that also ignores human anatomy and physiology. And the new science Common Core, being developed under a committee loaded with educationists rather than scientists, is anticipated to be even narrower, methods-driven, and content depleted.
The science stupidity being broadcast today to the American public—erroneous information by pseudo-experts—is unforgivable.