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Radiation and Children Section 1: The Correct Knowledge of Radiation

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Keywords: DNA, iodine 131, health, nuclear, children, radiation, reactive oxygen, thyroid, Toshiya Inaba, genes

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Let's cultivate wisdom, not knowledge

Japan is having a tough time. The newspaper headlines everywhere are all about radiation and radioactivity. Articles that explain the difference are appearing here and there, and all these figures are expressed in units of becquerels and sieverts that we have never heard before.

But, do we have to know the difference between radiation and radioactivity and memorize all these figures in order to protect our health and the health of our children?

No, I don't think so. As long as we are not planning to become specialists, such detailed knowledge of radioactivity isn't really necessary. Mothers don't need to know as much about illness as pediatricians do in order to make sure their child gets well. What mothers need is careful attention to know when their child might be sick and the wisdom to consult a doctor in a sensible way.

Here I will talk about this kind of wisdom with regard to radiation.

There it is! Right here!

The newspapers and TV make a big fuss about how much radiation there is every day. How many microsieverts there are in the air; how many becquerels in spinach, how much in the tap water, and then in fish. It is enough to make us neurotic. But, this kind of talk reminds us of how people have reacted to ghosts since ancient times. And why are ghosts scary? It's because we can't really see them and don't know what they really are. We become afraid just thinking that they are around us. People react to radiation in the same way.

Radiation and radioactivity are everyday affairs. As you are reading this, your body is being penetrated by radiation, or cosmic rays, from the outer reaches of the universe. This is not meant to scare you, but it's true. And what's more, radiation is found in vegetables, meat and everything, so it enters our body whatever we eat. Radiation is in the soil and rocks and also emitted by them. Even if you'd like to live in a place without radioactivity, there is no such place on earth. And if you tried to escape into outer space on a rocket, you would only expose yourself to more intense radiation.

Living creatures are wary of radiation

Life appeared on earth more than 4 billion years ago. For the entire length of this unimaginably long period of time, we have been troubled by radiation and its effects. By this, I mean the fact that they break DNA strands. These are like incredibly long pearl necklaces, with one set in each cell. There are four colors of pearls, and the genetic information (with its set of directions) depends on how they are strung. Once it is broken, the order gets mixed up and that causes trouble.

On the other hand, we have lived with radiation for a long time, and living creatures know that radiation breaks DNA strands. That is why our bodies are always checking to see if radiation has caused a problem or not. In fact, our bodies perceive DNA breakage very quickly, even within a few minutes, and then rapidly get to work to repair the damage. Although it takes a few hours to repair, it is still an accomplishment. Even if you do not feel the radiation nearby, your body senses it and does not forget even for an instant.

Reactive oxygen is the troublemaker

Radiation is not the only thing that breaks DNA strands. You probably know the TV commercial that says your skin begins to age at 30 or 35. Then it goes on to say that reactive oxygen damages your skin. Yes, reactive oxygen will damage DNA.

In other words, radiation uses reactive oxygen and its effects to damage the DNA. You could say that the reactive oxygen is what the radiation uses to break the DNA strands. Radiation creates reactive oxygen to do this work. What's scary is that reactive oxygen is produced in your body everywhere in daily life. As we age, the amount of reactive oxygen increases.

So, which is greater: reactive oxygen from radiation or that which is generated in your body? That depends on the amount of radiation received, but in everyday life, the amount of reactive oxygen produced in your body spontaneously is much greater. This is a very important point that will come up later.

Let's not overreact

When thinking about radiation, first make sure to pay attention to the amount. This is the second piece of wisdom. Don't overreact. Radiation and radioactivity are part of everyday life. Regardless what we might wish, there is no place on earth, or even a planet in the whole universe where radiation and radioactivity don't exist. Compared with the rest of the universe, the earth is a paradise with the lowest level of radiation. Living creatures have learned how to deal with radiation through the long course of living with it.

When thinking and talking about radiation, take into consideration the specific amount. That is the main point of this section.

The original article was posted on the CRN Japanese site in April 2011.

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Toshiya Inaba
Professor and Vice Director of Hiroshima University Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine, Doctor of Medicine.
Graduated from Tokyo University Medical School. After employment at Saitama Children’s Medical Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Jichi Medical University School of Medicine, appointed Professor, Hiroshima University Research Institute for Radiation Biology and Medicine in 2001, and Vice-Director since 2009. Specializes in hematology (mechanism of the onset of leukemia, pediatric hematology), microbiology, and radiation biology.
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