For a long time now, I’ve referred to microwaving as “nuking” food. That is, of course, wrong. There is no characteristic splitting or combining of atoms as with nuclear power. Instead, microwave ovens use microwave radiation to heat up food by causing the fat, sugar, and water molecules in the food to vibrate faster.

Speaking of radiation, the FDA has green-lighted using radiation on spinach and lettuce to kill germs.

FDA Allows Produce to be Zapped With Radiation to Kill Food-Poisoning Germs

The government will allow food producers to start zapping fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce with just enough radiation to kill E. coli and other dangerous germs, a key safety move amid increasing outbreaks from raw produce.

Irradiated meat has been around for years, particularly ground beef. But food companies long worried that zapping leafy greens with X-rays or other means of radiation would leave them limp.

The Food and Drug Administration has determined that modern irradiation techniques kill food-poisoning germs without compromising the safety or nutrient value of raw spinach and lettuce. Its new rule takes effect Friday.

Radiation!I think irradiating foods like lettuce, spinach, and meat is an excellent idea. I like the idea of killing off any nasty little germs and parasites inside my food before I eat it. But the practice of irradiating food seems to expose people’s ignorance and fear of radiation.

Recently I was in a posh grocery store and saw a four-pack of mangosteens imported from Southeast Asia. It was the first time I had seen mangosteens in the U.S., but the asking price of $15 for four fruits was higher than I was willing to pay. I was surprised that they had even made it into the U.S. I remember looking for them in the ’90s, but fears of bringing in Asian pests like the fruit fly had prevented their import. But as I held the package of mangosteens, I noticed a little label that stated it had been irradiated. That would certainly eliminate the threat of fruit flies.

Next to me stood another customer talking with the grocery manager about the mangosteens. He agreed with me that the fruit seemed to be pretty light, and we both wondered if they were old and dried out. The grocery manager opened up the package and said, “Great, now I’ve released some radiation.”

BZZZT! Wrong!

Irradiated foods do not become radioactive themselves. Food is irradiated with shallow penetrating electrons or with deeper penetrating gamma or x-rays. While these techniques will kill living organisms down to viruses, none of them will make the irradiated food itself radioactive, any more than shining a flashlight on some cherries will make them glow on their own later.

You could make food radioactive by bombarding it with neutrons, but food is not processed that way. Doing so would be, to use a technical term, really dumb. Almost as dumb as believing that commercially irradiated foods become radioactive, or believing that radioactivity behaves like a gas trapped in a plastic container, or believing that a microwave actually nukes food. Almost, but not quite.

Another common radioactivity misconception centers on the dangers of radon. Radon is one of the noble gases like helium and neon, only radioactive. There are many public service announcements on the radio warning about the dangers of radon gas, and radon is listed as the second leading cause of lung cancer. But the truth is that radon isn’t dangerous by itself. As a gas, you breathe it in and out, and as long as it remains radon, it will do no harm to you. But the problem is that radon doesn’t remain radon. If you have the bad luck of breathing in an atom of radon that decays into polonium inside your lung, you are in trouble. From then on, as the polonium decays into other elements over the next four days, your lung will get zapped by alpha and beta radiation. And it is that cumulative radiation that will give you lung cancer.

So to be precise, it’s not radon that is dangerous, but the results of radon decaying that is the killer. However, that’s like saying it’s not guns that kill, but the bullets the guns shoot. I doubt I’ll ever hear a PSA about the dangers of radon, explaining that it’s the resulting decay chain that is dangerous rather than the radon itself, since it would take too long to explain in a 30 second radio spot.

Another common misconception about radiation has to do with the depleted uranium often used in military rounds. People have picked up the misconception that depleted uranium is horribly radioactive, but 238U isn’t all that radioactive. Compared to the four-day half-life of radon’s dangerous isotope, 222Rn and the 35 millisecond half-life of 218Rn, the 4.5 billion year half-life of 238U is as close to “forever” as people are likely to experience in their lives. A 4.5 billion year half-life is practically not radioactive at all.

“Oh, yeah? Well what about the trace amounts of 235U in depleted uranium rounds? It’s more reactive than 238U.” While it’s true that 235U has a shorter half-life than 238U, its half-life is still 700 million years. As Steven Den Beste wrote, “You’re talking about processes which are so slow that within the scope of a human lifetime they’re indistinguishable from ‘stop’.” I’ve heard people rant about the horrible radiation the U.S. forces have unleashed on the poor Iraqi people with two waves of depleted uranium ammunition during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but the truth is that you get more radioactivity from hugging your spouse than from hugging a similar-sized block of 238U. Den Beste does a masterful job of educating the ignorant about the nature of depleted uranium here and here.

But depleted uranium is dangerous because of heavy metal poisoning. Just like mercury, lead, and plutonium, uranium can be absorbed by the body, but that has nothing to do with radioactivity since it is a simple chemical process. While uranium can oxidize quickly if it burns, the result is a very heavy powder that would be unlikely to be breathed in, though it is possible. If someone tries to tell you that our use of depleted uranium in Iraq has lead to hundreds, thousands, or millions of deformed babies, ask them about the lack of deformed babies born in Kuwait since the Gulf War. After all, the vast majority of depleted uranium used in the Gulf War was fired in Kuwait. As we draw close to two decades later, Kuwait isn’t the hell-hole of depleted uranium horror that the blame-America-first types would have you believe Iraq is becoming. But facts have little effect when talking with some people. No amount of education can sway a mind that is made up and refuses to look at the facts.

It says something about the state of American education and of knee-jerk activism these days that so many people have so many misconceptions about radiation. It is sad, but more than that, it is dangerous–because people burdened by misconceptions make bad decisions, and that can contribute to a food supply that’s more likely to be tainted and dangerous, not less.

Leave a Reply