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Wednesday
Mar162011

Radiation Exists Across US but Mostly Harmless, Experts Say

Ablestock.com/Thinkstock (file photo of a Geiger counter)(NEW YORK) -- Despite U.S. consumers' growing awareness of iodide pills, Geiger counters and emergency kits in the wake of Japan's nuclear scare, most Americans have little to worry about, according to experts.

Radiation, they say, is all around us, even inside of us, and it's perfectly safe for the most part.

To illustrate the point, ABC News took a Geiger counter around New York City to test different objects and locations.  Even in the middle of Central Park, there was always a background level of radiation.  At a food stand in the park, a banana made the Geiger counter rise a little bit.  Bananas contain potassium, which people need to live, but is also radioactive.

Over at Grand Central Station, the meter on the Geiger counter moved a lot.  Grand Central was built with granite and marble, which are both radioactive.

Eric Hall, a nuclear researcher at Columbia University in New York City, said that the thousands of people who walk through Grand Central every day are not at risk of getting sick because the radioactivity around them comes in "very, very small" doses.

Another activity that exposes people to radiation is air travel.  In the course of a year, a flight crew flying between Tokyo and New York is exposed to 14 millisieverts of radiation.

In fact, every year, just walking around the planet, each individual is exposed to about 3.5 millisieverts of radiation.  That's about 67 chest X-rays, or 134 cross-country plane trips.

Here is a comparison of the radiation levels of everyday items and activities:

-- Banana: .0007 mSv
-- Pistachio: .001 mSv
-- Smoke Detector: .0029 mSv
-- Abdominal CT Scan: 10 mSv

Experts say even a full meltdown in Japan would be no reason for alarm in the United States.

"If any radiation were to make it here, it would be merely background levels and nothing for people on the West Coast or people in the United States to be concerned about," said Jere Jenkins, the director of Radiation Laboratories at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

In order to get radiation sickness, a person would need to be exposed to at least 1,000 millisieverts of radiation at once.  For most people, a fatal dose is about five times that amount; a range of 3,500 to 5,000 mSv of radiation at once is deadly, which would be equivalent to spending 10 hours close to the  Fukushima Daiichi reactor.

To put that in perspective, the radiation levels at the scene of the fire at the nuclear plant in Japan have reached about 400 millisieverts per hour, meaning a person would have to be right there at the fire for two and a half hours to get sick.

Radiation workers have a limit of 50 mSv per year.  Workers who are reaching that limit are being pulled out now.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio







ABC News Radio