March 16th, 2011
02:43 PM ET

Experts: U.S. won't feel health effects from Japan

The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which has suffered numerous fires, explosions and subsequent radiation leaks since Friday's earthquake, could get worse, and just how much worse is unknown.

But health and nuclear safety experts agree that even if radiation levels around the plant reach Chernobyl-like levels, Japan's disaster will not pose a health hazard to the United States.

The United States is thousands of miles from the leaks and once the radiation gets into the air, it disperses and dilutes as the wind blows it, said Nolan Hertel, nuclear engineering researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology. Radioactive particles travel with the wind and fall out onto the ground. The amount that will reach the United States will be too little to cause health problems.

"It’s not like there’s a big blob of it and it’s all going to stay together. All this stuff is either gaseous or highly diluted," Hertel said.

Still, some elevation in U.S. radiation will probably be noted, he said. The more radiation that's released from the plant, the more likely the United States will detect it. The direction the wind blows and the presence of rain also matters, said Malcolm Grimston, nuclear technology expert at the Chatham House in the United Kingdom. Radioactive caesium and iodine, some of the concerning chemicals being released by the plant, can dissolve in rain water, he said.

The distance between Los Angeles and Chernobyl is about 6,246 miles; Los Angeles to Fukushiima Daiichi is only a bit closer, at 5,368 miles.  New York to Chernobyl, located in modern-day Ukraine, is even closer at 4,629 miles. But there has been no evidence of health effects felt in the United States from that nuclear accident, which was worse in its radiation effects than Fukushima Daiichi (so far).

Also, iodine-131, the radioactive form of iodine that's a byproduct of the uranium at Fukushiima Daiichi, disintegrates into an unstable form of xenon that then becomes stable xenon, which is not harmful. Iodine-131 has a "half life" of eight days, meaning that in eight days, half of a given sample of it will be gone. So, in a few months' time, the amount of radioactive iodine will go down to negligible levels, said Bingham Cady of Cornell University.

Cady's bottom line is that there shouldn't be concern that the United States will feel health effects in the wake of Japan's crisis; the more serious issue is whether American nuclear power plants are also susceptible to these kinds of problems during natural disasters such as earthquakes.

After Chernobyl, small children developed thyroid cancer because radioactive iodine that fell from the sky got into the grass that cows ate, and those cows produced milk for drinking. But iodine is easily detected so there shouldn't be a problem with milk or water, Cady said.

"We know enough to monitor water for radioactivity and if it’s contaminated above a certain very small amount, not to drink it," he said. "Japan is so sophisticated, and so is the United States. We’re not going to go around and by mistake, drink radioactive water."

Cady and Hertel said those on the West Coast of the United States who are buying a lot of potassium iodide to protect themselves against the harmful effects of radioactive iodine on the thyroid are overreacting. Grimston said it's fine to have it around, as long as people  use it only when authorities say it's OK. Taking it unnecessarily is not a good idea.

"If it makes someone feel more secure, having a supply on hand, that’s a personal decision that that individual should make," Dr. James Thrall, chief of radiology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told CNN's American Morning.

soundoff (338 Responses)
  1. viablanca

    I thought Godzilla would be out of the volcano by now the way this has been covered.

    March 20, 2011 at 16:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Alaska mom

    Hello what about Alaska? Again we don't count, that's great

    March 21, 2011 at 00:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • run

      And Hawaii ...

      March 22, 2011 at 16:36 | Report abuse |
  3. Common Sense

    When the gov't tells you not to worry and to stay in side.It's time to run for the hills.What is their definition of traces of radiation?what elemements"When some have a lethal dosage of .008 mg

    March 21, 2011 at 08:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Rock

    I feel so much better that all the radiation is dispersing safely to the ends of the earth
    Thanks Elizabeth

    March 21, 2011 at 10:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Celeste

    I wonder how many people will OD/take too much KI (potassium iodide). By the time the radiation gets this far it will be so diluted that it will actually be safer than doing the irrational things people are doing here in the US.

    March 22, 2011 at 01:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KK

      You are believing the government hype apparently...Even the CDC, Federal Center for Disease Control lists dosage amounts for infants through adults...I have never read effects of taking too much....only a warning if you are allergic to shellfish, you may have trouble with the potassium iodide...the govt. did not want anyone thinking that they should take it because the military scoffed up all the pills for all their people...smell the coffee

      April 6, 2011 at 01:13 | Report abuse |
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  8. Patricia malunda

    questions are answered about the amount and the effect of airborne nuclear health problems for others including Americans, ok assuming we by their results, It"s a bit much to sell products newly comming out of that region we just don"t know, It"s to early better be safe then sorry American needs to re unite and regain our own strength given to us before we destroy it all"""""' Think.

    March 26, 2011 at 10:45 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.