There have been a lot of reports and contradicting information circulating recently about radiation and its potential dangers. Reports of contaminated water, milk, vegetables and ocean radiation make the news daily as well as claims that there is little to no danger posed by contamination of varying degrees. I sat down with Dr. Ian Fairlie, an Independent Consultant on Radiation in the Environment to find out what radiation is, how it spreads and who might be affected.

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What are the main risks around radioactive contamination of food?

We hear a lot about ceasium and iodine, and taking iodine tablets, what are the real risks?

Is there really no more radiation risk here than eating a banana a day, or having a CT scan?

People buying iodine tablets in preparation for a radiation cloud as far away as California, is there really a danger that far away?

Some commentators have been praising the wind going out to sea as being beneficial. Is there a danger of radio nucleotides concentrating in seafood or other dangers for the ocean environment from Cesium or other radioactive elements?

Chernobyl was 25 years ago and there is still an exclusion zone because of radioactivity, how long will it be before the area is safe? How long will we have to worry about this threat?

What do you think is important now for the public to know about the Fukushima disaster?

Update: By popular demand (with apologies for the poor audio quality) here's a transcript of the answers above):

We hear a lot about cesium and iodine, and taking iodine tablets, what are the real risks?
The real risks are that if you drink contaminated milk or contaminated food that contains radioactive iodine you will get thyroid cancer. So to avoid that you take iodine tablets, of stable iodine [inaudible] and what that does is it tops up the iodine in your thyroid gland so you don’t take in the radioactive iodine into your thyroid.

What are the main risks around radioactive contamination of food?
The main problems are breathing in radioactive gases and dust, vapors, and mist which are coming from the reactor core. This would involve, primarily, radioactive iodine, iodine 131, and eating or drinking contaminated food or contaminated milk will give thyroid doses which could result in thyroid cancer later on. That’s the main danger from the crisis so far at Fukushima.

What do you think is important now for the public to know about the Fukushima disaster?
My overwhelming feeling about this is one of sadness and apprehension for many people who live in Japan and in the areas downwind of the reactors. I feel [great sorrow?] And I also feel a little bit of anger about the hubris shown by industry people in Japan who built the reactors so close to the [fault zone?]. There’s a famous philosopher George Santayana who lived in Italy up until the 1950s and he had a famous saying [or criticism?] which was that the tragedy about history is that if people don’t learn from it they will relive it, and I just hope that the Japanese government will learn from this and will not have to relive it.

How long will it be before the area around Fukushima is safe?
It could be a long time, a long time, because you know there’s still a 30 km exclusion zone around Chernobyl and that’s like [inaudible]. How long? It’s difficult to say, forever perhaps? It’s a serious matter. Put it this way, the radioactive half-life of caesium [inaudible] 30 years, and the conventional rule of thumb is to apply 10 half lives which is 10 times 30, that’s 300 years. Well that’s a long time and we could be talking about the same period near Fukushima in Japan. And it’s not just Fukushima, it’s areas downwind. What we’ve learnt from Chernobyl is that there are many radioactive hotspots many, many kilometres away. In Britain for example, 2,500 km away from Chernobyl [inaudible] upland areas of Cumbria and north Wales which are still contaminated [so it’s a serious matter?].

Is there a danger of radio nucleotides concentrating in seafood?
The radioactive fallout in the sea it will result, if there’s rainfall, in contamination falling into the sea and it will result in some contamination of seafood, no doubt about it. It all depends on how concentrated the fallout is, and it’s very difficult to make any realistic prediction right now. However I will mention that back in the 1960s there was an incident called the Lucky Dragon where the radioactive fallout dumped on a fishing boat gave the fisherman very high radioactive burns. So it would be unwise to say that there is no danger, it really could be dangerous, but it’s very difficult to predict right now and I don’t think there’s [inaudible] any realistic advice [inaudible]

Is there a danger of a radioactive cloud as far away as California?
Really difficult to say. The thing is that it depends on the weather pattern, in particular the wind direction. I’ve seen some computer models of predicted, projected pathways for some contamination coming from the stricken reactor but these are computer models and predictions and it’s very difficult to say whether these will occur [inaudible], for example. But the ones I’ve seen so far predict there will be small concentrations arriving in [inaudible] California and the west coast of Canada as well. Whether that will occur is difficult to say. Should people in California be concerned about this, and take some iodine tablets? My advice would be watch very carefully the weather patterns and go onto the New York Times for example which has a number of predicted weather patterns, weather models, and if there are predicted high concentrations of [inaudible] coming ashore they will contain iodine and [perhaps?] it would be a good idea to take some iodine tablets but only where you think, where it’s quite clear, that there are predicted high levels of contamination arriving on the west coast. My advice would be particularly the case for children, for young ones, not so for adults. If people are really relatively near the coast they automatically will have fairly good levels of iodine, stable iodine, in their thyroid. It’s only in areas further inland, I’m talking about hundreds of miles further inland, where thyroids are going to be avidly seeking it. So on the coast itself, even say about 40-50 miles from the coast, I think adults really shouldn’t worry so much. But children where their thyroids are active and growing they [inaudible] on the lookout for iodine so it would be a good idea to give them slightly reduced amounts of iodine tablets. You can find the amount on the side of the bottle or the packet, of how much you are supposed to give to children.

Is there really no more radiation risk here than eating a banana a day, or having a CT scan?
The thing about CT scans or x-rays is that the [inaudible ] benefits. Patients, obviously after discussions with the doctor, willingly to undergo such treatments - there’s a very powerful benefit. There’s no benefit there. To compare medical treatments with the accident is really quite distorted and very misleading. Similarly with eating bananas [inaudible] The point is here that the proponents of nuclear power are making, is that bananas do contain a little bit, a little bit, of K 40, potassium 40, which is radioactive. Yes that’s true, a tiny bit, but we have to be quite clear that all around us there are very, very, very low amounts of radioactivity which occur naturally, like for example [carbon 14?] but in very, very low amounts. So to equate the exposures which are happening at Fukushima with the tiny, tiny amounts that you’re taking in normally via food is really misleading, it’s quite immoral actually.