There’s something about having kids that can turn a fairly rational person into a neurotic worrywart. So it was with our spring break trip to Hawaii, planned long before Japan trembled, flooded and announced that the emissions from its devastated nuclear reactors shared the same disaster category as Chernobyl.
We live in Seattle, so we’re already pretty close to the action. Radioactive milk was detected in eastern Washington, and atmospheric monitors had registered elevated levels of radioactive isotopes, so I was already uneasy. But as news reports showed images of radioactive water first gushing from a leak at the reactor site then being intentionally dumped into the Pacific in order to make room for even more radioactive contents, I started to wonder whether it made sense for my family to transport ourselves six hours closer to the crisis unfolding on the other side of the pond. (More on Time.com: How Useful Are Stem Cell Transplants for Fukushima’s Workers?)
For days, I haunted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website showing results of its radiation monitors stationed throughout the U.S. The data was presented in various measurements, making it difficult to compare, and there was no baseline, making it tough to discern how alarming the increase actually was.
Fortunately, my job covering parenting, among other topics, for Healthland offered the perfect solution. I didn’t have to simply stress out; I could actually lay out my dilemma for experts in the name of work. Instead of asking friends what they would do in my situation, I could ask people who actually knew the difference between a millisievert and a millirem. And so I did.
I had so many questions: is it okay to drink the water? The milk? Was it okay to play in the ocean or would it be akin to marinating in a toxic swimming pool? (More on Time.com: Radiation May Be a Greater Cancer Risk for Adults Than Doctors Thought)
In the course of trying to answer those questions, I learned lots of interesting information about radiation. Bananas are a mainstay in my household and will continue to be, but I will never look at them the same now that I know, thanks to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) , that they, along with brazil nuts, “contain higher levels of radiation than other foods. Brick and stone homes have higher natural radiation levels than homes made of other building materials such as wood. Our nation’s Capitol, which is largely constructed of granite, contains higher levels of natural radiation than most homes.”
Mostly what I learned is that no one can really say for sure whether any radiation exposure is safe. The NRC says that the “radiation protection community conservatively assumes that any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect, and that the risk is higher for higher radiation exposures.”
Great. So where does that leave my three kids, my husband and me? Is traveling to Hawaii safe?
David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, rephrased my question. It’s not a matter of whether Hawaii is safe in terms of radiation; scientifically speaking, safe implies zero risk, and that’s not the case. In general, the risk of developing cancer in the U.S. is in the range of 40%; tacking on whatever additional exposure we’d receive in Hawaii would be akin to increasing our risk to 40.001%.
“My analogy is the lottery,” says Brenner. “Your chances of winning are exceedingly small but because lots and lots of people buy lottery tickets, some people will win. You can never say who they are. The expectation is there will be some extra cancers due to the overall increase in radiation exposure from the scenario in Japan. There’s a population consequence, but I don’t think there’s really an individual consequence.”
In any case, radioactivity doesn’t always follow a predictable path, says Joseph Ring, a certified health physicist who did environmental monitoring during Chernobyl and helps laypeople understand radiation safety. He saw data showing higher radioactivity content in Boston’s rainwater than Seattle’s; go figure. (More on Time.com: Do TSA Pat-Downs Work? Even Kids Know How to Blow Up a Plane)
“The problem with radioactivity is we don’t understand it as a population,” says Ring. “We know it’s connected to the bomb and therefore it’s scary. My advice I give to people on the West Coast who have bought potassium iodide is put it in a box and mail it to someone in Japan.”
Henrietta Dulaiova, a professor of geography and geophysics with a masters in nuclear engineering and a PhD in oceanography at the University of Hawaii Manoa, made me feel better. She uses naturally occurring radioactive isotopes to study ocean processes — how water mixes, for example. By the time radioactivity is carried on currents to Hawaii, she said, it would be at “negligible” levels compared to the vast volume of water in the Pacific. Who knew ocean water was radioactive, infused with potassium uranium? “The ocean has so much radioactivity in it, and it’s normal,” she says. “That’s how the ocean has existed for many millions of years, and we know it’s not harmful for the fish or for us.”
James Cox, a radiation oncology professor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, emphasized that we’re surrounded by ionizing radiation all the time. “If you take a trip to Tokyo on a plane you are increasing your amount of exposure to cosmic radiation substantially and people don’t ever think about that,” he says. “Radiation is a fact of life. Go on your trip and don’t worry.”
In the end, my 6-year-old daughter had the last word. When she heard we were considering canceling our trip, she shot me a withering look and, arms akimbo, said, “Hello? Japan is not Hawaii!”
She, of course, was right. And so we came. The tops of the volcanic countryside are foamy with clouds, the water has more shades of blue than a Crayola box and the sun dapples the waves.
Hawaii feels nice and safe to this anxious American mom, and to the scores of camera-toting Japanese tourists we’ve seen who’ve apparently come here to forget for a few days their own, far more justified, worry.