Is Japan Radiation a Threat to U.S. or Not?

Recently there has been the issue of Japanese radiation spreading across the U.S. Detected from coast to coast in the United States and Iceland, amounts continue to be far below levels that would cause health problems. The reason behind this unnecessary scare: super-sensitive equipment. “The development of super-sensitive equipment to detect radiation is both a blessing and a curse, allowing scientists to monitor materials released in nuclear accidents, but also causing unnecessary worry,” says Kathryn Higley, director of the nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University. Although the equipment has picked up on traces of radioactive cesium and iodine, such material is “below what would be hazardous.”

The amounts of radiation detected so far have been a fraction of what people are normally exposed to; doctors, pilots and others are often confronted with much higher concentrations. Ahmed Hassanein, head of nuclear engineering at the Purdue School of Nuclear Engineering says, “traces of radiation from Japan are absolutely of no concern.” Unlike Chernobyl’s disaster in 1986, Japan’s radiation has remained in the lower atmosphere, not allowing it to spread as quickly. This has led many officials to disagree with the incidents being compared to one another. “In the case of Chernobyl there was a large graphite fire that lifted radioactivity to high altitudes and spread it over large distances,” explained Yukiya amano, International Atomic Energy Agency chief. Others have also agreed with Japan’s radiation being an unnecessary worry.

“It could take as much as a year to spread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It could take another year before it is widespread in the Southern Hemisphere because of blocking at the equator caused by rising air currents where winds from north and south collide,” explained Jeffrey Stehr, an atmospheric research scientist at the University of Maryland. Even though many believe that Japan cannot top what happened in Chernobyl, some disagree.

Dr. Natalia Mironova, a prominent leader in the anti-nuclear movement in Russia, believes that Japan could get worse. “Three reactors have exploded, not one like in Chernobyl. The region is overpopulated, so a big number of people live in a very small land. Lastly, there was some delay in informing people about the radiation exposure,” explained Mironova. “We need to use energy supplies that have absolutely no potential of harming the human population.” Individuals such as Wendy Hamilton, a New Haven resident and retired nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital, supports Mironova’s opinion on nuclear energy.

“I do not want any more nuclear plants, and I want the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decommission all the American plants,” said Hamilton. Hamilton, along with four other protesters stood outside General Electric’s corporate headquarters in Fairfield to urge the company to stop building nuclear power plants. “General Electric knowingly sold and built nuclear power plants on the coastline in an earthquake and tsunami-prone region, and now GE is revving up to unleash its latest nuclear technology in India,” explained Nancy Burton, a long-time anti-nuclear activist.

Lee Evans, another protester, said GE ought to concentrate on wind, solar and geothermal energy rather than nuclear energy. Evans mentioned how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had extended the license on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant despite public opposition, and how the plant was “aging and leaking.”

Even though radiation may not be a threat from Japan it could very well become a threat from sources in the U.S., especially if not properly taken care of. “We must bring an end to this nuclear madness, this perpetuation of nuclear energy,” Burton said. “We send hope, prayers, a sense of solidarity, sadness and our sense of culpability in what has happened to our friend and neighbor, Japan.”

Using Banana Peels to Purify Water of Dangerous Toxins

Although banana peels are commonly known for causing cartoon characters to slip, they actually have a much more important role in our lives: protecting us from pollutants that may slip into our water. Past research has shown that coconut fibers, peanut shells and other plant materials could potentially remove toxic heavy metals such as lead and copper from water. Current methods for purifying water of heavy metals are expensive and at times poisonous, therefore leading researchers to find alternatives to the current water purifiers.

Scientists at Sao Paulo State University in Brazil and their colleagues wanted to see if banana peels could act as water purifiers. The idea came about while researcher Gustavo Castro was eating some bananas at home. “I was at home eating some bananas when I had the idea, ‘Why not make something with this?’” The idea then grew as the research team began to observe the compounds in banana peels, finding significant results.

Compounds in banana peels contain nitrogen, sulfur and organic compounds such as carboxylic acids. These acids have their negatively charged electron pairs exposed, meaning they can bind with metals in the water that “usually have a positive charge,” Castro explained. Being able to bind with metals in the water allows the minced banana peel to perform as well or better at removing copper and lead than many other filtering materials, quickly removing both from water in the Parana River in Brazil. Besides being able to perform better than many other filtering materials, banana peels can also be used multiple times without losing their “metal-snagging properties.”

A purifier made of layers of minced banana peel could be used up to 11 times without losing its ability to grab the metals in water, and its natural material makes it dramatically cheaper and does not require a lot of work, unlike synthetic materials. Although this new development offers a new source of hope in developing countries, where water quality is low and water-screening technology is hard to come by, researchers say that no one should rush out to put mushed bananas into dirty water to make it potable.

“All these materials are produced in the laboratory with the same objective – to remove metals from water,” says Castro. Therefore, it is not as simple as grabbing mushed bananas and combining them with dirty water; it is much more than that. Castro and other researchers hope that this technique will someday be used in industrial settings as a cheap and non-toxic helper in the effort to ensure cleaner drinking supplies. The technique worked even at high levels of pH, which supports the idea of the technique being used in waste flows from industrial sources. Other types of “green” alternatives have been used such as sugar cane, coconut fibers and apple peels, but banana peels had never been used.

Castro and his colleagues were the first to use banana peels; starting off with flasks of water that contained pre-determined levels of positively charged copper and lead ions, they added dried and ground banana peels. After a few minutes there was less metal in the water than there was at the beginning of the experiment, showing that the peels had bound the metals. Although banana peels cannot actually be used to remove metals from water, their value lies in their ability to gather together trace amounts of copper and lead and make the metals easier to detect.

In the new study, banana peels increased the concentration of both metals by a factor of 20, making them very easy to sense, even with basic tools. “This is something that is interesting for people who have limited access to highly sophisticated instrumentation. They could use this as a pre-concentrator so that they could then detect minute quantities of metal, even with equipment that has high detection limits,” says Ashok Gadgil, an environmental engineer at the University of California, Berkeley. Gadgil agrees that banana peels do have some benefit in water monitoring, but believes that more research should be done on a wider range of banana types at different levels of ripeness. “I would want to know if a banana in Bangladesh works the same way as a banana in Brazil,” he says.

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