2011 Japan Nuclear Incident
Frequently Asked Questions

Situation Status & Radiation Monitoring FAQs

For Vermonters from the Vermont Department of Health

Is there a danger of radiation making it to the United States?

Radioactivity resulting from the tragedy in Japan is being measured across the states, including Vermont. These are miniscule amounts compared to what we experience in everyday life. There is no health risk, and no reason for anyone to take special precautions.

The Health Department will continue to sample and analyze air and other environmental samples to measure any increase in radioactivity coming from Japan. In mid-April 2011, air sampling results in Vermont ranged from not detectable to a maximum of 0.2 pCi/m3, similar to national measurements. If air at this maximum of 0.2 pCi/m3 was inhaled every hour for the next year, a person’s dose would still be 2,000 times less than the U.S. public dose limit set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. However, people will not breathe this for an entire year because radioactive iodine-131 only has an eight day half-life. This means it will decay to half its strength in that time, and to essentially nothing in 80 days. Emissions from the Fukushima site are now decreasing over time.

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What is Vermont Doing to monitor radiation?

The Health Department has been tracking radiation levels in the environment since 1970, before the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Station was built. For this event, the Health Department is using its existing environmental radiological monitoring stations around Vermont Yankee – plus a new air monitoring station installed in Burlington – and will report results at www.healthvermont.gov.

In addition to air monitoring, the Health Department is also taking samples of milk, maple syrup or sap, surface water, drinking water and winter crops. Water was sampled in late March and the other products were sampled during a training exercise on April 6.

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From the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and USA.gov

Is there a danger of radiation making it to the United States?

As a result of the incident with the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, several EPA monitors have detected very low levels of radioactive material in the United States consistent with estimates from the damaged nuclear reactors. These detections were expected and the levels detected are far below levels of public-health concern.

Elevated levels of radioactive material in rainwater have been expected as a result of the nuclear incident after the events in Japan since radiation is known to travel in the atmosphere. There have been reports received that the states of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts have seen elevated levels of radiation in recent precipitation events. EPA is reviewing this data – in both cases these are levels above the normal background levels historically reported in these areas.

While short-term elevations such as these do not raise health concerns – and the levels seen in rainwater are expected to be relatively short in duration – the U.S. EPA has taken steps to increase the level of nationwide monitoring of precipitation, drinking water, and other potential exposure routes to continue to verify that. EPA’s only recommendation to state and local governments is to continue to coordinate closely with EPA, CDC and FDA – EPA will continue to communicate our nationwide sampling results as they come in.

The EPA has its radiation air monitoring (RadNet) data, frequently asked questions, and other resources on http://www.epa.gov/japan2011/.

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Is the U.S. government tracking the radiation released from the Japanese plants?

Yes, a number of U.S. agencies are involved in monitoring and assessing radiation including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Energy (DOE), and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  The best source of additional monitoring information is the Environmental Protection Agency. http://www.epa.gov/japan2011/.

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Has the government set up radiation monitoring stations to track the release?

EPA is utilizing its existing nationwide radiation monitoring system, RadNet, to monitor continuously the nation’s air and regularly monitors drinking water, milk and precipitation for environmental radiation. EPA has publicly stated its agreement with the NRC’s assessment that we do not expect to see radiation at harmful levels reaching the U.S. from damaged Japanese nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, EPA has stated that it plans to work with its federal partners to deploy additional monitoring capabilities to parts of the western U.S. and U.S. territories.

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What is the official agency to report radiation numbers, and what is the public contact? 

NRC regulations require nuclear power plants to report any radiation doses detected at the plant that could be harmful to the public.  This would include doses that are generated by the plant or by an external source.  During an event in the U.S., it is the state’s responsibility to provide protective action decisions for public health and safety.   For this incident, the Japanese are responsible for reporting the public dose; nevertheless, should radiation doses be detected within the U.S., it would still be the state’s responsibility to provide protective action decisions for public health and safety.

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What is the worst-case scenario?

In a nuclear emergency, the most important action is to ensure the core is covered with water to provide cooling to remove any heat from the fuel rods.  Without adequate cooling, the fuel rods will melt.  Should the final containment structure fail, radiation from these melting fuel rods would be released to the atmosphere and additional protective measures may be necessary depending on factors such as prevailing wind patterns.

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What else can go wrong?

The NRC is continuously monitoring the developments at the nuclear power plants in Japan.  Circumstances are constantly evolving and it would be inappropriate to speculate on how this situation might develop over time.

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What other U.S. agencies are involved, and what are they doing?

The entire federal family is responding to this event.  The NRC is closely coordinating its efforts with the White House, DOE, DOD, USAID, and others.  The U.S. government is providing whatever support requested by the Japanese government.

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What is the NRC doing in response to the situation in Japan?

The NRC has taken a number of actions:

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The United States has troops in Japan and has sent ships to help the relief effort – are they in danger from the radiation?

Department of Defense (DOD) is better suited to provide information regarding its personnel.

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Health FAQs

From U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

Are there protective measures I should be taking? What are the risks to my children?

At this time, the NRC does not believe that protective measures are necessary in the United States. We do not expect any U.S. states or territories to experience harmful levels of radioactivity. In the unlikely event that circumstances change, U.S. residents should listen to the protective action decisions of their states and counties. The NRC will provide technical assistance to the states should they request it. United States citizens in Japan are encouraged to follow the protective measures recommended by the Japanese government. These measures appear to be consistent with steps the United States would take.

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What are the short-term and long-term effects of exposure to radiation?

The NRC does not expect that residents of the United States or it territories are at any risk of exposure to harmful levels of radiation resulting from the events in Japan. 

On a daily basis, people are exposed to naturally occurring sources of radiation, such as from the sun or medical X-rays. The resulting effects are dependent on the strength and type of radiation as well as the duration of exposure.

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Potassium Iodide (KI) FAQs

From U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Should I take or purchase potassium iodide (KI) as a protective step?

No. There is no public health event requiring anyone in the US to take KI because of the ongoing situation in Japan.

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What is potassium iodide (KI)?

Potassium iodide (also called KI) is a salt of stable (not radioactive) iodine. Stable iodine is an important chemical needed by the body to make thyroid hormones. Most of the stable iodine in our bodies comes from the food we eat. KI is stable iodine in a medicine form.

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What does KI do?

Following a radiological or nuclear event, radioactive iodine may be released into the air and then be breathed into the lungs. Radioactive iodine may also contaminate the local food supply and get into the body through food or through drink. When radioactive materials get into the body through breathing, eating, or drinking, we say that “internal contamination” has occurred. In the case of internal contamination with radioactive iodine, the thyroid gland quickly absorbs this chemical. Radioactive iodine absorbed by the thyroid can then injure the gland. Because non-radioactive KI acts to block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid gland, it can help protect this gland from injury.

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How does KI work?

The thyroid gland cannot tell the difference between stable and radioactive iodine and will absorb both. KI works by blocking radioactive iodine from entering the thyroid. When a person takes KI, the stable iodine in the medicine gets absorbed by the thyroid. Because KI contains so much stable iodine, the thyroid gland becomes “full” and cannot absorb any more iodine—either stable or radioactive—for the next 24 hours.

Iodized table salt also contains iodine; iodized table salt contains enough iodine to keep most people healthy under normal conditions. However, table salt does not contain enough iodine to block radioactive iodine from getting into your thyroid gland. You should not use table salt as a substitute for KI.

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I live in the Western United States – should I be taking potassium iodide (KI)?

At this time, the NRC does not believe that protective measures are necessary in the United States. We do not expect any U.S. states or territories to experience harmful levels of radioactivity. In the unlikely event that circumstances change, U.S. residents should listen to the protective action decisions of their states and counties. These protective action decisions could include actions such as sheltering, evacuation, or taking potassium iodide. The NRC will provide technical assistance to the states should they request it.

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Hypothetically, if they were needed, what are the FDA-approved products for radiation exposure?

There are three FDA-approved potassium iodide (KI) products for use as an adjunct to other public health protective measures in the event that radioactive iodine is released into the environment. The three over-the-counter products are:

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Is potassium iodide the only medication available for radiation exposure?

Potassium iodide is the only FDA-approved medication available for exposure to radioactive iodine. There are FDA-approved products available that increase the rate of elimination of other radioactive elements. They include:

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We have heard that potassium iodide is in short supply? Is that correct?

FDA is aware of an increased demand for KI products. FDA is working with these companies to facilitate increased production. We can’t provide an exact date on when that might happen, but it will occur as quickly as possible.

Several components of the federal government maintain stockpiles of medical supplies for emergency situations.  For instance, the CDC maintains the Strategic National Stockpile for civilian use, while the Department of Defense maintains their own supplies for support of military operations.  The respective federal organizations should be contacted with any additional requests about the specific items and quantities in those stockpiles.  Deployment of these stockpiles is governed by policies and procedures developed by the individual organizations based on available information and potential benefits and risks to public health.

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Where would I get IOSAT Potassium Iodide if my town experiences fallout from the Japanese nuclear disaster? Is this the right precaution or is there anything else I can do?

We do not expect any U.S. states or territories to experience harmful levels of radioactivity.  As such, we do not believe that there is any need for residents of the United States to take potassium iodide.  U.S. residents should listen to the protective action decisions by their states and counties.  If necessary, protective action decisions could include actions such as sheltering, evacuating, or taking potassium iodide.

Additional information regarding the use of potassium iodide can be found on NRC’s webpage at the following link:
http://www.nrc.gov/about-nrc/emerg-preparedness/about-emerg-preparedness/potassium-iodide-use.html

Since Potassium Iodide is classified as a drug. Additional information is on the Food and Drug Administration’s web site: www.fda.gov

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If I see web sites advertising potassium iodide or alternative cures, should I buy the products?

Due to the public concern related the nuclear incident in Japan, there has been an increased demand for drugs, such as Potassium iodide (KI), used to prevent and treat the harmful effects of radiation.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all the available information continues to indicate that the United States, including U.S. Territories, are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radiation from the event in Japan.

The FDA is alerting consumers to be wary of internet sites and other retail outlets promoting products making false claims to prevent or treat effects of radiation or products that are not FDA-approved. These fraudulent products come in all varieties and could include dietary supplements, food items, or products purporting to be drugs, devices or vaccines. 

Consumers should be wary of the following:

Don't be fooled by professional-looking Web sites.  Avoid Web sites that fail to list the company's name, physical address, phone number, or other contact information.

For more tips for online buying, visit Buying Medicines and Medical Products Online.  To determine if a particular drug is FDA approved, check The Orange Book or Drugs@FDA.

Consumers and health care professionals are encouraged to report adverse side effects or medication errors from the use of both approved and unapproved radiation exposure products to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program at www.fda.gov/MedWatch or by calling 800-332-1088.

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Radiation FAQs

From U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the World Health Organization (WHO)

What is ionizing radiation?

When certain atoms disintegrate, either naturally or in man-made situations, they release a type of energy called ionizing radiation (IR). This energy can travel as either electromagnetic waves (gamma or X-rays) or as particles (neutrons, beta or alpha). The atoms that emit radiation are called radionuclides. The time required for the energy released by a radionuclide to decrease by half (i.e., the half-life) range from tiny fractions of a second to millions of years depending on the type of atoms.

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Are people normally exposed to ionizing radiation?

Human beings are exposed to natural radiation on a daily basis. The radiation comes from space (cosmic rays) as well as natural radioactive materials found in the soil, water and air. Radon gas is a naturally formed gas that is the main natural source of radiation.

People can also be exposed to radiation from human-made sources. Today, the most common man-made source of ionizing radiation are certain medical devices such as X-ray machines.

The radiation dose can be expressed in units of Sievert (Sv). On average, a person is exposed to approximately 3.0 mSv/year of which, 80% (2.4 mSv) is due to naturally-occurring sources (i.e., background radiation), 19.6 % (almost 0.6 mSv) is due to the medical use of radiation and the remaining 0.4% (around 0.01 mSv) is due to other sources of human-made radiation.

In some parts of the world, levels of exposure to natural radiation differ due to differences in the local geology. People in some areas can be exposed to more than 200 times the global average.

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How are people exposed to ionizing radiation?

Ionizing radiation may result from sources outside or inside of the body (i.e. external irradiation or internal contamination).

Internal contamination may result from breathing in or swallowing radioactive material or through contamination of wounds.

External irradiation is produced when a person is exposed to external sources such as X-rays or when radioactive material (e.g. dust, liquid, aerosols) becomes attached to skin or clothes, resulting in external contamination.

External contamination can often be washed off the body.

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What type of radiation exposure could occur in a nuclear power plant accident?

If a nuclear power plant does not function properly, radioactivity may be released into the surrounding area by a mixture of products generated inside the reactor ("nuclear fission products"). The main radionuclides representing health risk are radioactive cesium and radioactive iodine. Members of the public may be exposed directly to such radionuclides in the suspended air or if food and drink are contaminated by such materials.

Rescuers, first responders and nuclear power plant (NPP) workers may be exposed to higher radiation doses due to their professional activities and direct exposure to radioactive materials inside the power plant.

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Food Safety FAQs

From U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Is there risk of food contamination from radiation? What is FDA doing to assess the situation in Japan?

Based on current information, there is no risk to the U.S. food supply.

FDA is closely monitoring the situation in Japan and is working with the Japanese government and other U.S. agencies to continue to ensure that imported food remains safe. FDA already has a very robust screening process for imports and has staff in place at the ports to monitor incoming products. FDA does not have concerns with the safety of imported food products that have already reached the U.S. and that are in distribution.

As part of its investigation, FDA is collecting information on all FDA regulated food products exported to the U.S. from Japan, including where they are grown, harvested, or manufactured, so it can further evaluate whether, in the future, they may pose a risk to consumers in the U.S. As FDA assesses whether there is a potential health risk associated with FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan, it will develop a monitoring strategy that may include increased and targeted product sampling at the border.

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How do I know if my water is impacted by Japanese radiation if there is no EPA RadNet water sampling in my town?

Based on current information, there is no health risk to the U.S. food or water supply.

The RadNet radiation monitoring system provides a national network for tracking radiation levels across the country. The system utilizes over 50 drinking water monitoring sites in the U.S., and, because radioactive material from Japan will be widely dispersed, reporting from multiple locations throughout the country will show impacts to the nation as a whole. EPA recently announced that they are accelerating their sampling for precipitation, drinking water and milk supplies.

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How often does EPA monitor drinking water for radiation?

EPA’s RadNet Drinking Water Program obtains quarterly drinking water samples from more than 50 sites across the country. Due to the Japanese nuclear incident, our sampling stations nationwide will collect the samples immediately and send them to our laboratory for analysis.

From the time the samples get to the laboratory, it takes approximately three days to complete the analysis.

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Is there any possibility of milk being contaminated as a result of cows eating contaminated grass or feed crop in the U.S.?

At this time, models do not indicate that harmful amounts of radiation will reach the U.S. and, therefore, there is very little possibility of domestic milk being contaminated at harmful levels as a result of grass or feed contamination in the U.S. FDA, together with other agencies, is carefully monitoring any possibility for distribution of radiation.

Results from a screening sample taken March 25, 2011 from Spokane, Wash. detected 0.8 pCi/L of iodine-131, which is more than 5,000 times lower than the Derived Intervention Level set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These types of findings are to be expected in the coming days and are far below levels of public health concern, including for infants and children. Iodine-131 has a very short half-life of approximately eight days, and the level detected in milk and milk products is therefore expected to drop relatively quickly.

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Does EPA test milk for radiation contamination?

As part of efforts to ensure that there is no public health concern in the U.S. related to radiation exposure, EPA routinely samples cow milk at more than 30 stations every three months.

EPA is accelerating the regularly scheduled sampling for milk throughout the country to provide additional data more quickly in light of the Japan nuclear incident.

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Why is milk sampling important?

Sampling milk for radioactive iodine helps ensure that the milk supply is safe for the public by identifying potentially contaminated milk.

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Why has EPA increased their milk sampling?

EPA’s existing milk sampling milk routine would have RadNet operators collect milk samples during the first week in April. Instead, the sampling stations across the nation will collect the samples immediately.

This action is precautionary to make sure that as much data is gathered as possible in order to inform scientists and the public.

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What is the estimated time for obtaining milk testing results?

From the time the sample analysis begins, we can have preliminary results within four hours, but a complete analysis can take up to three days.

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Is Japan testing for contaminated milk and, if so, what have they found?

Yes, Japan is testing milk. FDA is coordinating with the Japanese government to ensure products from the affected prefectures do not pose a health risk to U.S. consumers. Please see the FDA website for more information: http://www.fda.gov/

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What will FDA do if grass or feed crop in the U.S. does become contaminated?

FDA's response will depend on the nature of the risk determined to exist. If the grass or feed crop in the U.S. becomes contaminated, FDA will evaluate the risk based on:

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What is the standard for Iodine-131 in foods?

FDA has set a Derived Intervention Level (DIL) for Iodine-131 of 170 Becquerel per kilogram (Bq/kg) in foods prepared for consumption. This level does not define a safe or unsafe level of exposure, but instead a level at which protective measures would be recommended to ensure that no one receives a significant dose. This guideline is based on very conservative assumptions regarding the percentage of the diet assumed to be contaminated as well as the amount of food consumed and the length of time an individual consumes contaminated food.

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What systems does FDA have in place to protect the US food supply?

The U.S. enjoys one of the world’s safest food supplies. FDA has systems in place to help assure that our food supply is wholesome, safe to eat, and produced under sanitary conditions.

FDA has a team of more than 900 investigators and 450 analysts in the Foods program who conduct inspections and collect and analyze product samples. FDA oversees the importation of the full range of regulated products, including food and animal feed, among other responsibilities.

Altogether, FDA electronically screens all import entries and performs multiple analyses on about 31,000 import product samples annually. During Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, the Agency performed more than 175,000 food and feed field exams and conducted more than 350 foreign food and feed inspections.

FDA works to inspect the right imports—those that may pose a significant public health threat – by carrying out targeted risk-based analyses of imports at the points of entry.

If unsafe products reach our ports, FDA’s imports entry reviews, inspections, and sampling at the border help prevent these products from entering our food supply.

Although FDA doesn’t physically inspect every product, the Agency electronically screens 100 percent of imported foods products before they reach our borders. Based on Agency risk criteria, an automated system alerts FDA to any concerns. Then inspectors investigate further and, if warranted, do a physical examination of the product.

FDA also works cooperatively with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to help identify shipments that may pose a threat. 

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What products come to the US from Japan?

Imports from Japan include human and animal foods, medical devices and radiation emitting products, cosmetics, animal and human drugs and biologics, and dietary supplements. Foods imported from Japan make up less than 4 percent of foods imported from all sources. (Food products from Canada and Mexico each make up about 29 percent of all imported foods.) Almost 60 percent of all products imported from Japan are foods. The most common food products imported include seafood, snack foods and processed fruits and vegetables.

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Are there dairy products that come from Japan?

Foods imported from Japan constitute less than 4 percent of foods imported from all sources. Dairy products make up only one-tenth of one percent of all FDA-regulated products imported from Japan. Most dairy products in the US market are produced domestically. FDA is consulting with USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to ensure the continued safety of dairy products.

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Are there food harvesting (fields, fisheries) or processing facilities in the area of the Fukushima nuclear reactor?

While FDA does not track fields or fishery areas in foreign countries, it’s important to note that the damage caused by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami has reportedly halted production prior to the explosion at the reactor.

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Is there any reason for concern about radiation from these products when they are imported into the US?

Right now, due to the damage to the infrastructure in Japan, FDA believes that export activity is severely limited. FDA is monitoring all import records for Japan to determine when importation will resume and will conduct surveillance to assure safety. FDA does not have any concerns for products that were already in transit when the explosion occurred at the reactor.

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What are the current procedures for measuring radiation contamination in food? How will these change? How will FDA ensure consumers’ safety?

FDA has procedures and laboratory techniques for measuring radionuclide levels in food, and can also utilize the Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) (http://www.fernlab.org/).

FERN integrates the nation's food-testing laboratories at the local, state, and federal levels into a network that is able to respond to emergencies involving biological, chemical, or radiological contamination of food. FDA is working with Customs and Border Protection (CPB) to share resources and techniques for measuring contamination. FDA has the ability to measure contamination in products and issued guidance in 1998 regarding safe levels.

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Will FDA issue an import bulletin? What sort of techniques will FDA use to measure radiation in food?

FDA will issue an import bulletin or an assignment to the field once an assessment is completed on products and appropriate testing that can be completed. Products travel by vessel, the typical transit time for products to reach the US is about 8 days. FDA and other domestic regulatory labs have validated analytical methods to detect radiological contamination in food.

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Is FDA looking at products that might have traveled through Japan at the time of the explosion?

FDA will be examining both food products labeled as having originated in Japan or having passed through Japan in transit. The same is true for raw ingredients.

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How will the radiation affect fish and seafood that have not yet been fished or harvested?

The great quantity of water in the Pacific Ocean rapidly and effectively dilutes radioactive material, so fish and seafood are likely to be unaffected. However, FDA is taking all steps to evaluate and measure any contamination in fish presented for import into the US.

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What are the chances of radiation affecting growing areas in the US? What action will FDA take to ensure the safety of consumers of those products?

At this time, there is no public health threat in the US related to radiation exposure. FDA, together with other agencies, is carefully monitoring any possibility for distribution of radiation to the United States. At this time, theoretical models do not indicate that significant amounts of radiation will reach the US coast or affect US fishing waters. Please see www.epa.gov for more information about monitoring efforts.

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Travel FAQs

From U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and U.S. State Department

My family has planned a vacation to Hawaii/Alaska/Seattle next week – is it safe to go, or should we cancel our plans?

The NRC does not expect that residents of the United States or its territories are at any risk of exposure to harmful levels of radiation resulting from the events in Japan. Any changes to travel are a personal decision. The NRC is unaware of any travel restrictions within the United States or its territories.

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I am traveling to Asia (not Japan). Should I adjust my travel plans to avoid flying through plume or being contaminated once on the ground?

Please refer to the U.S. State Department: http://www.state.gov/

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Other Frequently Asked Questions

From various national agency sources

My loved one is overseas, how do I find out if they are okay?

We are directing public inquiries with regard to concern for loved ones overseas to the U.S. State Department, Consular Services at 202-647-7004.

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With exports from Japan disrupted, is there any possibility that some medical products could be in short supply?

FDA has been contacted by a few companies who receive product from Japan and we are working with them on their supply issues.

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Can this happen here?

The events that have occurred in Japan are the result of a combination of highly unlikely natural disasters.  These include the fifth largest earthquake in recorded history and the resulting devastating tsunami.  It is highly unlikely that a similar event could occur in the United States.

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How many nuclear power plants are located in seismic areas?

Although we often think of the US as having “active” and “non-active” earthquake zones, earthquakes can actually happen almost anywhere. Seismologists typically separate the US into low, moderate, and high seismicity zones. The NRC requires that every plant be designed for site-specific ground motions that are appropriate for their location. In addition, the NRC has specified a minimum ground shaking level to which the plants must be designed.

Page last updated: April 8, 2011

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