Monday, March 14, 2011

Common Colds & Banana Doses

Oh banana, why hast thou forsaken me?

I hab a cobbon coad.

(sneeze... cough...)

Sorry, let me start again: I have a common cold. Yes, the ominous-sounding nasopharyngitis, or acute viral rhinopharyngitis, has taken up residence in my head. It's really not the end of the world, I promise you. Here are some not-very-interesting facts about the common cold: adults get 2-4 of them each year on average; kids get 6-12 of them. It's been my experience that adults who have school-aged kids in the house get them a hell of a lot more often than those who don't, which is why my pet name for my son's school is the Germ Factory.

Anyway, my lovely lady Kat had it bad last weekend, and now it's my turn. Again, no big deal. Looking at it optimistically, since I have a recording session this coming Saturday, I will likely be ship-shape by then, so it's a lot better than if this particular virus had waited a few more days to invade my body. So, hooray for punctual viruses, I guess. I already seem to be feeling better than I did over the weekend, so expect less whininess in days to come... hopefully.

Now, let's talk about something that's actually somewhat interesting.

The Banana Equivalent Dose

Nuclear accidents are horrible. But are they worse than... a banana?

I am a big fan of bananas. More often than not, the first thing I consume each day (after a couple cups of coffee, several cigarettes, and some water) is a banana. Bananas are really good foods from a nutritional standpoint; they're good for your heart, nervous system, kidneys, bones, and blood. They even provide dietary fiber, which as one gets older, is appreciated as well. However, I recently found out something about bananas I didn't realize: they're radioactive.

(Cue ominous music)

No, really, they are. Many foods are naturally radioactive, but bananas are particularly so, with a good amount of radioactive potassium-40 in each delicious bite. Now, radiation is bad, right? Exposure to large amounts of radiation can cause your cells to mutate, giving you cancer and other forms of radiation sickness. This is scary shit. When you hear about radiation, it's often in conjunction with things happening in the world like the current problems with the nuclear power plants in Japan. When you see headlines about radioactive steam being released, it's human nature to not be very happy about such things, and possibly to want to see an end to all nuclear power solutions.

I'm not here today to debate nuclear power's long-term feasibility; like many folks, I have mixed feelings about it. But I will fill you in on a good way to keep perspective about being exposed to radiation, and that is something called the Banana Equivalent Dose. It's a scale that lets you compare radiation effects versus the exposure form eating a banana. If you ate one banana each day for a year, that would mean you've ingested about 3.6 millirems of radioactive material.

What does that mean? Well, don't be overly reassured: being in the vicinity of a nuclear accident is never, ever a good thing. But sometimes, you need to be aware that a very small exposure to radiation isn't something to cause widespread panic. Eating foods like bananas, potatoes, kidney beans, nuts, and sunflower seeds will expose you to radiation, as will flying in an airplane, or walking outside on a sunny day. Unless you are very close (i.e., within a 20-mile radius) of a nuclear accident, chances are likely that your exposure to radiation doing everyday things will result in a higher dose. Getting a few chest x-rays is generally way more radiation exposure than what most people are getting in the Fukushima plant area.

Is nuclear power a safer alternative than coal and oil-based fuels? Short term, the answer would seem to be yes. Long term, with the half-life of spent nuclear materials being decades long, the commitment to maintenance for hundreds of years is a bit frightening. Uranium mining and other activities that have to happen for nuclear power to function is also dangerous and creates long-term problems. For fulfilling the needs of the populace of the Earth, I have yet to hear about any viable power source that doesn't also come with massive drawbacks. But at least keep in mind that hiding in a bunker when a power plant that is thousands of miles away from you malfunctions is silly... at least if you plan on eating bananas while you're in your hidey hole.

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