Swine Flu Goes Nuclear

by Jena McNeill

Mention “nuclear radiation” at your next cocktail party, and the room will likely fall silent. Americans fear few things more than the idea of radioactive fallout landing on U.S. soil. Small wonder then that from California to Oregon, potassium iodide is selling out.

But the fearful response is not always the most appropriate. And facts, not fears, should determine how we respond to the nuclear crisis in Japan.

Perhaps the most important fact for those of us stateside: It is extremely unlikely that the radiation released into the atmosphere from Japan will have any biological effect on U.S. populations. Radiation levels in Tokyo, though higher than normal, are currently still below the threshold which poses danger to human health. And Tokyo is only 150 miles from the damaged nuclear plants. More than 5,000 miles separate the U.S. and Japan. Radiation that blows eastward would likely break down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. 

What if such radiation reaches U.S. shores? First, we should determine the degree of the problem. The danger of low-dose exposure is incredibly small, and the technologies to detect radiation are incredibly advanced. Moreover, potential health risks can be mitigated by factors such as general health, duration of exposure, genetic traits, and medical treatment.

We must also recognize non-radiation risks. Potassium iodide itself can produce harmful side effects in some people, especially those with certain medical problems like thyroid issues and chronic diseases. It’s not prudent to take it unnecessarily.

People are naturally concerned about the health and safety of their families. They should keep current on the situation, listen to the communications from government officials, and remain calm. Meanwhile, government officials must provide factual, up-to-date information and be open and honest about risks.

What leaders should avoid is the type of baseless, over-reactive measures invoked during the last public-health scare in the U.S.: the swine flu. Eager to be seen as caring, concerned, and “doing something,” public officials aired ridiculous ideas (e.g., stop eating pork to avoid the flu) and lawmakers offered ludicrous proposals (e.g., seal the borders to keep “carriers” out). Officials may be tempted to play to public fears of radiation in a similarly unhelpful and disruptive fashion. They shouldn’t.

Media reports over the next few days and weeks will contain a lot of “maybes.” Americans must pay attention, but they should also weigh these reports critically. Sift through the “maybes” to get at the facts — which are almost always far less alarming. When faced with a potential threat — even one involving radiation — calm and common sense are invaluable.

Jena Baker McNeill is senior policy analyst in homeland security for the Heritage Foundation.

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