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Experts Say Radiation From Japan Too Low To Worry About

Hansi Lo Wang

The state Health Department has confirmed traces of radioactive iodine from Japan's failed nuclear reactors have reached Seattle.

Tim Church: "We're talking such small amounts, we're really like a needle in a worldwide haystack, is what we're looking for."

That's Health Department spokesman Tim Church. Experts say the amount of radiation found is not enough to worry about. KUOW's Hansi Lo Wang has more.


Michael Yost teaches at the University of Washington's school of public health. He says so far data from monitors in Washington state show radiation levels are normal.

Yost: "You know, the numbers now — in the range of, you know, teens to hundreds — are, you know, at least ten to a hundred times below when we would even start to pay attention to them."

There are four stations in the state that monitor airborne radiation levels — in Seattle, Tumwater, Richland and Spokane. They're part of a national network of monitors set up by the EPA. It's called RadNet. Yost says those RadNet monitors are like canaries in a mine. They'll alert scientists if radiation even approaches a public health risk.

The US Department of Energy also tracks radiation levels in the Northwest. It confirmed traces of radioactivity from Japan were detected last week in Richland at the DOE's research lab. But officials said they were too small to pose any health risk. Michael Yost says there's a big difference between radiation that's detectable and radiation that's dangerous.

Yost: "And even if we could detect it, it doesn't mean that it's reaching a level that would be harmful for people's health. And so the distinction is that levels that we can measure are not necessarily things that are of health concern. And it would take a lot of material in the air to constitute a health concern. We're not anywhere close to that. We're thousands of times away from that."

Most people connect radiation with death, but the fact is we're exposed to radiation every day. It comes from radioactive particles and gases in the soil, and even from outer space. Experts call it background radiation. And Yost says it's natural.

Yost: "There's a balance to be had between what is kind of the level of background exposure that we normally experience, and what would constitute something that we really have to worry about and pay attention to."

You can check the current radiation levels in Washington yourself. The state Health Department and EPA are now releasing daily radiation readings online.

For KUOW News, I'm Hansi Lo Wang.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

Note: State health officials say people shouldn't take potassium iodide because of what's happened in Japan. It's only recommended for people who work in or around nuclear power plants during an emergency.