In belated celebration of the glib and informal holiday known as April Fools Day, I’d like to take a serious look at the foolishness some will employ in the name of health. “Medicine, like politics, is a powerful magnet for weighty convictions of false metal.” So writes Richard Gordon in The Alarming History of Medicine. Among the many proofs-of-concept Gordon provides for this proclamation are the following folk remedies for whooping cough (pertussis):
1) Drink water from the skull of a bishop.
2) Catch a fish, place in patient’s mouth, return fish (and disease) to river.
3) Pass under and over a donkey. Repeat nine times.
Sound pretty ridiculous? Well, don’t chuckle too hard, because we have by no means outgrown such silliness. Recent concerns about, and “treatments” for radiation traveling to California from Japan are a perfect case-in-point. Be assured, the risk to Californians is currently, and almost certainly will continue to be, negligible, but that hasn’t stopped people from seeking therapy.
A quick spin across the Internet turned up multiple homeopathic sites with advice on deterring the effects of nuclear radiation exposure. Homeopathy, for those who need a little bit of a refresher, is a several centuries old form of alternative medicine. It is, at least in its original form, mostly harmless yet (beyond placebo effects) completely unproven. And while the term homeopathy has taken on a number of nuances, especially here in Marin, its purest methodology focuses on exposing patients to miniscule concentrations of therapeutic or toxic agents with the idea that “like cures like.” Often in commercial settings, however, homeopathic remedies include potent substances in potentially dangerous quantities. In the case of homeopathy for radiation exposure, “treatments” include Potassium iodide, Cadmium iodide, Phosphorus, Strontium carbonicum, and x-ray. That’s right, x-ray radiation as a treatment for nuclear radiation – as far as I’m concerned that’s on par with passing up and over a donkey nine times. But, fear and wishful thinking are powerful motivators, even in the face of potential adverse effects. I remember when my hairline started receding in college and I let a friend convince me that topical Preparation H would help. “Anything is worth a try,” I rationalized. Thankfully, after several days of being ribbed as a Pat Riley wannabe, I realized that established evidence was far superior to a tip from a source with dubious expertise. And with that assertion in mind, here courtesy of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) are the current facts regarding radiation risk in California.
*Monitoring sites in California have found only trace levels of nuclear radiation, well below a person’s average daily exposure (about 2 millirem a day). Your daily exposure, by the way, comes from sun, soil, air, toxins (such as cigarettes) and man-made technology.
*These monitoring sites, including one in Livermore, are currently conducting surveillance every 48 hours.
*All available data sources suggest that there is unlikely to be any significant migration of radiation from Japan to California (it is 5,000 miles after all).
* If you’re really worried about your personal radiation exposure, rethink any unnecessary medical scans. A chest x-ray, for example is approximately 10 millirem. A CT scan of the abdomen is around 500 millirem; nearly equivalent to the amount of “background” radiation an average person is exposed to in a year.
*California has a response plan for nuclear emergencies and a stockpile of potassium iodide pills in case there were to be a nuclear disaster much closer to home. Learn more at http://www.cdph.ca.gov/HealthInfo/environhealth/Documents/NERP/NERP.pdf.
*There is no reason to take or stockpile potassium iodide on your own. Potassium iodide has numerous potential side effects, including allergic reactions, heart irregularities, vomiting, and electrolyte abnormalities. "Really,” says Dr. Peter N Bretan, President of the Marin Medical Society, “there is no question at all medically - it is black and white, there is no need for people to be taking this."
Nowhere on the CDPH site is there any mention of using diluted x-ray radiation as a treatment for nuclear radiation – so I think you can give that recommendation the fish in the mouth treatment (and throw it back). As for the best approach to getting good information about this and other health scares? Trusted websites (such as those of the CDC and CDPH) are great sources. Dr. Bretan has another practical suggestion..."Your most important resource is your own physician - they can help advise you whether you should be concerned or not." And that’s no April Fools.