Radiate this

In the category of: Too little knowledge can be a dangerous thing

On the subject of: Radiation 

As in: Chernobyl, Fukushima, cell phones and peanut butter

Directly from: The bone marrow and leukemia specialist who has spent 30 years organizing the global medical response to nuclear and radiation accidents, the news is a lot better than you think. 

I learned this the hard way, last week at a PEN event for a new book by Robert Peter Gale and Eric Lax. “Radiation: What It Is, What You Need to Know” isn’t the kind of title that would normally draw me out of the house and down Benedict Canyon at the peak of rush hour, but I’m a proud PEN member and an admirer of Eric Lax’s other books, and — I can’t lie to you — the signing was at the Hotel Bel-Air, which beats the hell out of your venue. So, I told myself, I’ll go and buy the book, listen to the authors count the 10,000 ways in which I’m giving myself cancer at that very moment; maybe it will motivate me to go home and write, finish my novel before illness and death set in. 

The hotel, of course, is designed to make you feel you’re already dead and about to meet your maker once and for all. The valets in the front are all white, blond, young and cherubic. They take your car and whisper, “It’s $14 on the way out,” with such grace and elegance, you feel like you’re getting a deal and should be grateful. Then there’s the little bridge overlooking the ravine and the garden, the narrow pathway past the very empty reception area, a woman you’ve never met who nevertheless knows your name and just where you should be headed. There are enough sweets and berries and gleaming silver coffee urns in the foyer of the lounge to make any last supper an occasion to look forward to; a life-sized portrait of a very young, very healthy-looking Steve Jobs smiling at you from above the first Apple computer; and a group of good-looking, stylish men and women sitting quietly in a dimly lit room. The walls display giant, black-and-white portraits of famous people who don’t get old or die — not ever; not even in a nuclear meltdown: Cher, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger. 

And there, next to the enormous marble fireplace, is a tall, gray-haired white man talking about those dental X-rays you took last week. 

I had walked in halfway through the authors’ presentation, not because I was late, but because they had started on time. I imagine they skipped the social portion of the event because everyone in the room was eager to hear the experts, and find out what else was going to give them cancer. The gray-haired white man was Eric Lax. Dr. Gale, the radiation expert, was slim and trim and permanently tanned. By the time I sat down, he had already covered some (I came to know this later) crucial points about the nature and function of radiation, and was in the thick of explaining that: 

a. Even without being subject to harmful radiation, every man in that room had a nearly 45 percent chance of getting cancer at least once during his lifetime; every woman had a nearly 40 percent chance; and

b. Every person and thing in that room, including the Art Deco chair I was sitting on, the porcelain cup I had just drunk coffee from and the harmless-looking waiter offering me muffins and (antioxidant) berries was, at that very moment, emitting radiation. 

That’s what I mean by too little knowledge being a dangerous thing. 

I bought a couple of books — one for myself, another for my group of natural-everything friends who keep sinking inordinate amounts of money into the bank accounts of every chiropractor, osteopath, faith healer or detox expert called Dr. Khalsa — and went home to write my obituary. To that end, I thought I should read the book to find out which radioactive element — my husband, who slept in the same bed with me, or my latest mammogram — had caused my untimely demise, and maybe have it inscribed on my headstone as a warning to posterity. That was at 11 in the morning, and, granted, I had very low expectations. Still, I’m glad to report, things took a happier turn from there on. 

Dr. Gale’s dedication page mentions “esteemed colleagues” as well as “the many heroes, some of whom we were fortunate to save, others not, who battled and/or were victims of” radiation accidents in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Brazil, Japan, China “and elsewhere.” I could just see my own name featured among the heroes’ in future editions of the book. Eric Lax, on the other hand, just thanks his editor, “who improves writing and friendship.” 

I took this to mean one of two things: Either Eric has already thanked and bid farewell to everyone he really cares about or, having learned enough about radiation, he doesn’t think he’s going anywhere any time soon.  

I’m scientifically illiterate, so I had no idea, until page 16 of the book, that everything and everyone on this planet is radioactive, but that not all radioactivity is harmful. About half the radiation we receive comes from natural sources; the other half is man-made. Of the man-made kind, about 20 percent is from things like smoke detectors, computer screens, heart pacemakers and porcelain teeth; these aren’t especially lethal. The remaining 80 percent is caused mostly by medical procedures like X-rays, CT scans and mammograms — these are as bad for you as a Fukushima-type meltdown. 

Fukushima, in fact, “may cause only a slight, probably undetectable, increase in cancer risk in the exposed population over the next several decades” (p.21). That risk is about as great as being exposed to 80 or so X-rays over a lifetime. 

In other words, you don’t have to kick your significant other out of the bedroom just because he’s alive and breathing and irradiating you in the process. You do, however, have a much greater chance of being put to sleep at the hands of your friendly neighborhood physician than you do of a nuclear accident. 

So where, you ask, is the good news? 

The good news is that much of the cancer-and-birth-defect-and-genetic-disease-causing radiation can be avoided without significant sacrifice; you just have to know what they are. A few other seemingly deadly elements, such as irradiated food, aren’t nearly as bad for you as you might think. You need about 100 millisieverts of radiation to have a slightly higher-than-usual chance of getting cancer; that’s the equivalent of eating 12,500 cups of peanut butter. As for cell phones …

I would tell you, but I think everyone needs to read this book; it’s compact, easy to understand, rife with interesting revelations, and it cuts through a great deal of the noise surrounding the subject. 

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain.” Her column appears monthly in the Journal.