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After Japan: Story Ideas and Resources for Covering Radiation and Health

After Japan: Story Ideas and Resources for Covering Radiation and Health

Picture of Laurie  Udesky

We have a guest post today from veteran journalist Laurie Udesky.

The nuclear crisis still playing out in Japan may be happening thousands of miles away, but there are numerous relevant stories that health reporters can unearth in the United States that go beyond breaking news.

California is home to earthquakes, two functioning nuclear reactors, and four that have been shut down. (Two of the working reactors at Diablo Canyon are in an area where there are four earthquake fault lines.) As we have seen in news stories in recent days, California is also one of the geographical areas where scientists recorded slightly elevated readings of radioactivity in the air. You can find data on radiation levels in air and pasteurized milk by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency's Radnet search engine.   

You can build a story on the levels of radiation in food and dairy by talking to experts about such issues as what is considered unsafe to consumers, what happens in the body on a cellular level, and ask an expert to refer you to a longitudinal study, if such a study exists, that tracks health effects over time of consuming tainted foods or dairy.   

In order to put radiation exposure into a comprehensible perspective, the EPA has a radiation dose calculator. It also provides links to pages that explain such things as exposure pathways and how to estimate risk, and interpret what dose exposures mean for health.

To get data on nuclear power plants in the United States from the 1950s to 2009, the U.S. Energy Information Administration provides data here. Among the graphs in the document is one that shows the number of "nuclear generating units" that have been permanently shut down.  That information can be used to dig further. Before the shut-downs, were there radiation leaks?

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an excellent source for finding reports that can serve as a jumping-off point for deeper inquiry, For example, a February 2011 report discussed the shortcomings of relying on a computer assessment tool in developing clean up solutions for soil and ground water contamination. The report makes mention of the Savannah River Site.

Another useful resource on the GAO website is this September 2010 report: "Actions Needed to Address Persistent Concerns with Efforts to Close Underground Radioactive Waste Tanks at the Savannah River Site. From the title alone, it's worth investigating such questions as whether workers suffered any exposures that may have impacted health.  I would check and see if the workers are represented by a union and talk to the appropriate health and safety representative affiliated with the union.

There have been many reports that people in California and elsewhere are stocking up on potassium iodide for protection against radiation exposure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a detailed fact sheet about potassium iodide that could serve as a source for building a story around it. You can find that here:

Two other great resources for finding sources for radiation-related health stories are the websites of the Society for Environmental Journalists, and Environmental Health News, according to journalist Elizabeth Grossman, author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health and the Promise of Green Chemistry. SEJ has created a continually growing list of sources, says Grossman. Additionally, in her opinion is "one of the best places to keep up with environmental news," and has "top-notch scientists who can explain things in context."

Photo credit: ssoosay via Flickr

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