Copyright (c) 2007 by Ace Hoffman
It's all about the DNA:
August 7th, 2007
You are highly organized and very complicated. You are intricate, delicate, and beautiful. You are unique. One could even say that God has signed off on YOUR design: His "Certificate of Authenticity" is your unique DNA sequence. It describes you and only you, and makes you human.
Estimates vary (some are as low as 10 trillion), but according to many highly-qualified reference sources, there are about a hundred trillion ( 1 X 10^14) living cells in your body. Nearly all of them (except red blood cells and a few other specialized cells) have a nearly-perfect copy of your DNA in them. Each copy is so perfect, it can be distinguished from the DNA of all other humans even with the crude technologies of today.
YOU HAVE TO PROTECT YOUR DNA ALL YOUR LIFE. You have a number of tools to do this with: First, the DNA is attached to histones, which are protein structures which give it added stability. Next it is coiled tightly in on itself, not all strung out, which further protects it from damage. Next, it's inside the nucleus of the cell, and -- ideally -- only "approved" atoms or molecules get into the nucleus of a cell. The nucleus is usually near the center of the cell, so it's further protected by the body of the cell and the cell wall, which, like the wall of the nucleus, evolved to stop all DETECTABLE unwanted intruders. (Radioactive elements masquerade as non-radioactive elements until the moment of decay. Your body cannot tell them apart until it is too late.) All your cells are protected collectively by many layers of dead skin cells, as well as by hair. All this helps to protect your DNA from anything that might harm it. Even outside your body, the earth's atmosphere, its ozone layer, and its magnetic field, all help protect your DNA from the violent radiation in space.
Although skin protects everything inside it from much of the radiation outside your body, other parts of our bodies are designed specifically to BRING the outside world inside us -- to provide you with the air, water and nourishment you need to live. But ingestion and inhalation is also how many radioactive substances get inside your body, and thus, your lungs and your gut are especially vulnerable to many of radiation's effects.
Indeed, NONE of your biological protection systems work perfectly, which is why it's so important, as humans, to also use our BRAINS to protect our DNA. We choose not to eat poisons, for example, so as not to harm any of this stuff. ANY assault against your DNA should be done with "INFORMED CONSENT." OTHERWISE, YOU ARE NO BETTER OFF THAN A DOG IN A LABORATORY EXPERIMENT.
A single copy of your DNA is close to 100 billion ( 1 X 10^11) atoms long, arranged in about three billion "bases." (There are just four different kinds of bases.) About 97% of your DNA has no known function. The other 3% is arranged to form about 30,000 different genes. Genes are the genetic basis of our individual (and collective) traits. About half of the genes code for protein synthesizers (some code for more than one). Your DNA is further organized into 23 paired sequences called chromosomes.
If stretched out, a single copy of your DNA would be about six feet long. If laid end-to-end, the roughly 100 trillion copies of your DNA in your body would go around the world over four million times.
Each individual cell is, itself, a highly organized structure. Each cell is an extremely effective chemical manufacturing plant, capable of making tens of thousands of DIFFERENT protein molecules as needed. Your RNA controls this, and your RNA is a product of your DNA. A typical protein molecule can have 2300 non-hydrogen atoms (plus lots of hydrogen atoms) and is incredibly intricate in design (imagine the number of POSSIBLE designs of a molecule with so many atoms). Billions of proteins are created, modified and destroyed every second in your body.
Each cell is a part of a body-wide Internet, which communicates from one cell to another, or from one set of cells to other sets of cells, via chemical and electrical signals. Often, the complex protein molecules described above are used for this information transfer.
While your cells are dividing and replicating their DNA, the DNA is particularly vulnerable to damage. Stomach cells divide about every three days. This is one reason your gut is so susceptible to radiation damage. Nearly all of your body's cells will divide over and over during your life. It's supposed to happen flawlessly. Cell death without cell division also occurs -- it happens to about 50 to 70 billion cells per day in the average adult body -- but it is a pre-planned, carefully organized, highly controlled, and properly timed event. Unplanned cell death is just one of MANY hazards from radioactive materials.
Ionizing radiation CAN destroy ANY chemical bond, thus, it CAN damage the DNA directly. But it is much more likely that the atomic decay will create "free radicals" (atoms or molecules with unpaired electrons) which roam inside your body and wreak havoc over and over, until something (an anti-oxidant) captures the free radical.
In addition to DNA damage, each atomic decay inside your body can destroy thousands of chemical bonds. These bonds are normally 100% secure, solid, and reliable (except when your body intentionally makes or breaks them).
Radiation randomly damages your body, and its effect sometimes multiplies by numbers which appear to be gross exaggerations -- billions, trillions, etc.. But that's what causes varying degrees of cellular and / or system disfunction, including damaging the information transport systems within your body. Sometimes it kills you.
Less than a microgram (a thousandth of a milligram) of radioactive Polonium-210 (an alpha emitter with a half-life of 138 days) was all that was needed to kill British citizen (and former Russian spy) Alexander Litvinenko. Enough was spilled along the way to contaminate dozens of places and thousands of people, and to be tracked all the way from London to Moscow via several commercial airliners.
So don't underestimate how important the nuclear industry's promise of containment really is. Even a single atom of radioactive material can be a fatal amount.
Ever since the dawn of the nuclear age, the billions-of-years-old trend towards DECREASING radioactivity has ceased, and a sharp and unrestricted INCREASE has begun. This increase is in the form of minute particles which are not only invisible to the naked eye, they are UNDETECTABLE by ANY human sense organ, even in LETHAL DOSES. This makes it very easy to hide the damage whenever and wherever it occurs, especially if you believe (as pro-nukers do) that simply diluting radioactive materials renders them harmless. IT DOES NOT. It just spreads them around.
Before World War II, background radiation was estimated to be under 100 mRem per person per year.
Then, Alamogordo and the nuclear age began, and up it went. 160, 180, 200, 240, 280, 320, 360, 380 mRem. Reports calling "normal background radiation" 400 mRem per person per year have even been found recently! You can watch the creep in the public literature over the past sixty years.
The human contribution is due to atomic bomb blasts in war and in endless weapons testing, the manufacturing of nuclear weapons and the incomplete sequestering afterwards of the unused weapons stock, as well as from operating nuclear power plants, nuclear experiments gone awry, failed plutonium space launches, uranium and plutonium processing and reprocessing (now called "recycling"), planned releases, unplanned releases, illegal dumping, LEGAL DUMPING, inadequate containment, and a thousand other things. Once ANY radiation gets out into the environment, the pro-nukers and the government (a subset of pro-nukers) call it ALL "background radiation" or even "natural background radiation."
There is nothing you can do about most of your true (or "real") "natural" background radiation exposure. One major component that CAN be mitigated and should be is your Radon exposure. Sometimes as little as a fan or open window in the right place in a house, to remove contaminated basement air, suffices to get it out of your house (and into your neighbor's airspace). Radon has a relatively short half-life of about 3.8 days.
Another source of "natural" (not manmade) radiation is Potassium-40 (K-40). When citizens express concern about man-made radiation, pro-nukers often try to confuse the citizen by asking: "Aren't you worried about K-40?"
According to the Health Physics Society (the radiation-tolerant "protection" arm of the nuclear industry) the amount of K-40 in the average adult body is 17 milligrams and the average adult daily intake of radioactive potassium (K-40) is about 0.39 milligrams.
You cannot reduce your intake of potassium without serious health consequences, and a portion of your potassium intake WILL be K-40 (not much; only about 0.0117% of all potassium on earth is K-40 and it's pretty evenly distributed among the two stable natural isotopes of Potassium: K-39 (93.2581%) and K-41 (6.7302%)).
Your body doesn't need its potassium to be radioactive, but YOU can't separate it out easily or cost-effectively. Your body does not store excess potassium, so no matter how much you eat, you'll still retain about 17 milligrams of K-40.
But, to really understand how natural radioactive Potassium (K-40) compares to other radiation you might be (or ARE) exposed to, you need to look at more than just the weight.
Potassium-40 has a very long half-life of over a billion years (1.277 X 10^9 years). It decays mainly by beta emission (89%). According to the Health Physics Society web site, 17 milligrams of K-40 has an "activity" of 120 nanoCuries (4.4 kiloBecquerels), which is a measure of the amount of radiation given off by a substance. One Bq is one nuclear decay or other transformation per second. One Curie = 37,000 million Bq..
How often an atomic breakdown occurs is certainly one basic factor to consider in trying to determine the relative hazards of various radioactive assaults, but by itself it can give an inadequate picture of the relative damage that any particular type of atomic breakdown can do.
Potassium-40 represents about 5% of your "natural" internal radiation burden, as measured in Curies or Becquerels. But there are other ways to measure the relative damage -- for example: Rads and Grays consider energy absorbed per gram. Rems (Roentgen equivalent man) and Sieverts add in a factor for estimated biological damage. Another, slightly better, way is by using the Relative Biological Effectiveness (RBE) factor, which tries to guess the potential damage more accurately by paying attention to which specific organs are being irradiated. But RBE still isn't a very good measure, mainly because the tables of values are largely guesswork and underestimates.
ALL ejected electrons (beta particles), whether they start as "high-energy" beta particles or as so-called "low-energy" or "soft" beta particles, eventually reach that lower energy level, and the VAST MAJORITY of the damage is done at that so-called "low" energy level. This phenomenon is known as "Bragg's Curve" and is actually USEFUL in radiation therapy medicine: The phenomenon is used to aim radioactive particle beams at tumors buried inside the body. But "soft beta rays" is a term the pro-nukers made up to describe what is really a very deadly atomic bombardment by what they call "low-energy" beta particles. In fact, a 6 KeV beta particle (the average energy of a tritium atom's ejected beta particle) does about the same amount of damage to biological systems as a 500 KeV beta particle does (the average energy of a potassium atom's ejected beta particle), all other things being equal.
Shocking? Consider a magnet passed over a bunch of nails. If you pass it over them quickly, it will not pick any of them up. But when you pass the magnet over them slowly, the pull of the magnet has time to interact with the iron in the nails and can lift them against gravity.
The beta particle (an ejected electron) has a charge of "negative one." It pulls on anything that has a positive (opposite) charge and pushes on anything with a negative (similar) charge. A beta particle is a very small sub-atomic object: About 1/1840th the mass of a single proton or neutron in an atomic nucleus. When ejected from the nucleus of an atom, the beta particle has a lot of energy and is traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light. For example, a 6 KeV beta particle (typical from tritium) is ejected at about 0.15 c (15% of the speed of light). A 500 KeV beta particle (typical from potassium) is ejected at about 0.86 c (86% the speed of light).
At those high speeds, the beta particle's charge does not have time to cause disruption of other electrons (pushing) or atomic nucleuses (pulling) as it passes by them.
But, as the beta particle slows down, it has TIME to interact with things it passes near to. And THAT'S when it does most of its damage. It knocks other electrons out of their orbits and damages molecules by exciting (energizing) their atoms and rearranging them.
The tritium atom was probably part of a water molecule. If so, when it decays it leaves a vicious OH radical floating around, too. The beta particle, once it slows down, often is captured by an O2 molecule (a pair of oxygen atoms in solution), creating a "super oxide radical."
In the case of tritium, as opposed to potassium, the left-over element after the beta particle is ejected (Helium-3) is ALSO particularly nasty at first, because it has the recoil energy of the equal-and-opposite reaction to the ejected electron (beta particle). It flies back, away from whatever molecule it was in, where it was masquerading as a normal hydrogen atom until the moment of decay. Hydrogen atoms are used just about everywhere in your body, for many different tasks.
The recoiling atom, now a helium atom, weighs almost 6,000 times as much as the released beta particle. The recoiling helium atom can damage other molecules it bangs into, especially if it happens to hit a hydrogen atom. Your body (and the universe) has more hydrogen atoms than any other, so such collisions are not uncommon.
The beta particle, after it is released from one of the two neutrons in the nucleus of the tritium atom, has a negative charge. At the moment the beta particle is released, one neutron becomes a proton, and the tritium atom goes from being hydrogen to being helium -- but with just one neutron, which is one less than normal helium (99.99986% of all helium on earth has two protons and two neutrons in its nucleus).
The process of creating the helium atom has destroyed whatever it was a useful part of when it was a hydrogen atom, bonded to something and involved in one of life's processes.
The new helium atom (formerly a hydrogen atom) needs two electrons (instead of one) to fill its electron shells. It probably has one, and will quickly steal a second one from just about any other atom that happens to be nearby.
The helium atom is not radioactive and chemically is extremely inert. Your body doesn't use helium for anything (probably because its electron bonds are so strong, it doesn't combine with other elements to make useful new molecules).
Tritium has a radiological half-life of about 12.4 years, and the United States' EPA standard for tritium in drinking water allows 740 atomic breakdowns per second per liter. Your body has about 40 liters of water, so the EPA thinks that adding a burden of about 30,000 additional atomic breakdowns PER SECOND to your body -- just from tritium alone -- is PERFECTLY OKAY!
This compares with 4,400 atomic breakdowns per second for all 17 milligrams of K-40 in your body, which doesn't have nearly as many additional effects.
Is K-40 dangerous? Certainly. But it's unavoidable, and a relatively small risk.
On the other hand, the EPA limit for tritium in drinking water is unquestionably too lax. The nuclear industry is probably UNDERESTIMATING the death toll from tritium by hundreds (two orders of magnitude) if not thousands (three orders of magnitude), and they are ALL entirely preventable deaths (the pre-nuclear level for tritium was less than a thousandth of the EPA legal limit). The standards are based on the damage to healthy adult males -- the LEAST SUSCEPTIBLE of all possible groupings. FOR THE UNBORN, INFANT, OR CHILD, THESE ATOMIC BREAKDOWNS ARE MUCH MORE SERIOUS.
About 1/2 of all humans get cancer some time in their life. Either the cancer is destroyed or removed, they die of it, or they have it when they die of something else. About 1/4 to 1/3 of all people living today will die of cancer. Besides causing death, the radioactive assault causes neuromuscular damage, cardiovascular damage, fetal deformities, premature aging, etc. etc. etc..
In the case of tritium, nearly all the burden is created by easily-replaced human activities and is COMPLETELY avoidable. The tritium burden is especially harmful because of the ADDED effect of the resultant "hot" helium atom, the creation of the OH free radical, the sudden loss of the hydrogen atom, and several other effects particular to tritium, which can permeate ANY part of the human body. In other ways, other radioactive elements are WORSE than tritium: For example, Strontium collects in bones and teeth of the unborn, while Cesium collects in soft tissue, including muscle and women's ovaries and breasts. But by many measures, tritium is the worst of all.
When estimating radiation damage from different sources, one needs to be very specific. Pro-nukers don't like to get bogged down in details. They don't like to look their little devil in the eye.
The BIER VII report (Supplement two), after years of study, was forced to conclude that there is no safe dose of ionizing radiation. Numerous scientists I've spoken to over the years concur. As one recently put it: "I just can't see how shooting a projectile through a biological system can be safe. It's not harmless at all!"
To excuse a tremendous and unnecessary manmade radiation burden simply because there is ANY natural and unavoidable radiation burden is, in a word, inexcusable. Your K-40 exposure does not excuse your tritium exposure. ALL radiation exposure is damaging and sometimes even a single exposure can be fatal.
Dr. John W. Gofman, one of the most eminent nuclear physicists and medical doctors of our time, put it this way: "ANY DOSE IS AN OVERDOSE."
Don't let anyone smudge your DNA -- your personal combination of "Certificate of Authenticity," operating manual, and fundamental building block. Your DNA is the nano-code within you which builds all the nano-machines which ARE you.
URL for previous tritium essay:
Tritium Explained (why "Low Level Radiation" can be