Back in the saddle – The first of my bimonthly commentaries for Northeast Public Radio

I’d be the first person to admit that I’ve been extremely inconsistent about posting on this and other blogs. That’s all about to change, thanks to my friends at WAMC in Albany, NY. I’m now doing a bimonthly (at first) series of commentaries on various health and bioethics issues. The first of these aired on March 31, 2011 but you can read the text below.


Radiation, Risk and Reality

Like many people around the world, over the past two weeks I have watched the tragic events unfolding in Japan with sadness and horror. Although it was the earthquake and resulting tsunami that caused the greatest amount of damage and loss of life, it is primarily the crisis at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant that has so captured this nation’s attention. The world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl has many Americans concerned about their own health and safety.

When the media first reported that a radioactive plume coming from the crippled nuclear reactors was likely to hit the western coast of the United States, local and national health hotlines were flooded by panicked citizens worried about the threat. People also rushed to buy potassium iodide – a anti-radiation drug that can be used to prevent thyroid cancer. So palpable is this fear that some are even avoiding a trip to the local sushi bar out of fear of contaminated Japanese cuisine.

This fear of radiation is understandable. Unlike many threats to our health, radiation is odorless, colorless and tasteless. We’ve also been bombarded for years by images of nuclear war and the adverse effects of radiation – in movies like Terminator and The China Syndrome, in books like On the Beach, and even in political spots like Lyndon Johnson’s infamous “Daisy Ad.”

This fear is radiation is also somewhat irrational. This isn’t meant to suggest that radiation is good for you — as one controversial media personality has argued — or that the Japanese nuclear disaster will not have any impact on human health. People living in the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima plant will likely be at increased risk of cancer. But the impact of the radioactive plume on the health of people living on the west coast of the United States will be negligible. Californians are far more likely to be harmed from an overdose of potassium iodide than from the effects of the radiation that drug is meant to protect them from.

What the hoarding of anti-radiation drugs by Americans really speaks to is subject nature of fear and risk. We are far more likely to be afraid of — and go out of our way to avoid or prevent — extremely rare and exotic events than we are the commonplace and long-term risks in our daily lives.

When we drive around Los Angeles looking for a pharmacy that still has potassium iodide in stock, we are far more likely to be injured or killed an auto accident than we are to develop thyroid cancer. We’re deathly afraid of radiation released a result of a nuclear disaster over 5,000 miles away, but not of the far greater health risks associated with things like smoking, overeating, and driving.

There are some things that we should be concerned about following the disaster in Japan. Twenty-three nuclear reactors in the United States, for example, are of the same design as the reactors in Fukushima. Most in the nuclear industry and the federal government insist that these plants are designed to withstand natural disasters and that appropriate crisis management plans are in place. While this may be true, but recent history does not inspire much confidence in these claims.

Consider what happened in New Orleans not so long ago. Healthcare administrators in that city failed to invest in appropriate capital improvements or plan for mass evacuation of patients even after repeated warnings that certain hospitals were at risk of flooding. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, forty-five patients at these hospitals died as a result. In the five years since, new federal regulations aimed at addressing these issues have been delayed. The budget for the government’s national hospital preparedness program has also been slashed, a victim of financial austerity in Washington. Spending for other disaster preparedness programs is also targeted to be cut, including the nation’s tsunami warning systems and federal earthquake research programs.

Radiation is dangerous, but what is far more scary and deadly is the short-sightedness of our political and industrial leaders in planning for disasters.


About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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One Response to Back in the saddle – The first of my bimonthly commentaries for Northeast Public Radio

  1. dogwalker says:

    We do this because it’s tangible. Other issues are too ephemeral for most to grasp. And some of those bigger issues don’t have easy solutions – like buying potassium iodide. So we go for the immediate – we go for the easy – we go for something we can wave at others and say ‘see, we are doing something, we are responsible.’ And until government understands that’s how people, in general respond, really understand that, government will never be prepared.

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