Radiation exposure: When is a little way too much?

  • By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
  • Sunday, March 27, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

As long as I live, I will never forget one question: Was she exposed to radiation as a child?

No. Yes. I don’t know. Each of those answers bombarded my guilt-ridden brain in the days and weeks after my daughter was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer.

It was 2002. She was 19, a thriving, successful sophomore at Santa Clara University.

That fall, she had surgery at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. Over Christmas vacation that year, she underwent radioactive iodine treatment at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center.

She was incredibly brave, employing black humor about “Christmas in the lead room.” The treatment makes a patient temporarily radioactive, so she was isolated in a lead-lined room at the Seattle hospital.

My girl stayed in school. She took finals and maintained stellar grades that quarter. She is now 28, healthy, married and busy with her career.

That question about radiation exposure, asked by her doctors in 2002, still nags at both of us. In reading about her disease, which is very treatable, we learned that most thyroid cancers caused by radiation exposure are of the type she had.

It’s been almost a decade since that terrifying year. With the nuclear crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi complex spreading dangerous radiation, memories of what my daughter went through are flooding back.

Am I afraid? For the people of Japan, of course I am. For my family here? No. Yes. I don’t know.

I have read Herald writer Sharon Salyer’s stories about radiation monitoring sites in our state, the closest in Shoreline. I trust state Department of Health reports that recent radiation levels have remained in the normal background range. And sure, I know we are exposed to radiation every time we use a computer, talk on a cellphone or get some sun.

What keeps coming to mind is that question asked by my daughter’s doctors. She was born in Snohomish County and raised in north Everett. While I was pregnant with her, I worked at The Herald and sat in front of a 1980s-style computer terminal. Was that enough radiation to do harm?

When my daughter was 6 months old, she was crawling and tried to pull herself up on a table leg. She slipped and bumped out a baby tooth. I took her to the emergency room. A doctor referred me to a pediatric dentist.

That dentist took an X-ray of her mouth to see if the accident had disturbed the area below her gums, from which permanent teeth would grow. I was a new mom, age 29. It never occurred to me to question the wisdom of a baby having an X-ray.

Over the past year, The New York Times has done several articles about thyroid cancer. My daughter sent me a link to one of them, a long story published Nov. 22, 2010, and written by Walt Bogdanich and Jo Craven McGinty. The article’s focus was concern over dental X-rays for children.

Here is that article’s first paragraph: “Because children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to radiation, doctors three years ago mounted a national campaign to protect them by reducing diagnostic radiation to only those levels seen as absolutely necessary.”

When I read that, I was stunned. Did I cause my daughter’s cancer by allowing her to have a dental X-ray as an infant? I’ll never know the answer.

We trust in science — the best science that is currently known. That doesn’t mean the knowledge we understand today will be cutting-edge science accepted 20 or 50 years from now.

I was born in Spokane in 1953, and grew up there. Court cases involving people known as “downwinders,” those who believe their illnesses were caused by exposure to radiation from the Hanford nuclear reservation, dragged on more than 60 years after work began at Hanford.

Just last year, Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper published articles about the Labor Department notifying former Hanford workers of possible government compensation related to jobs that exposed them to cancer-causing radiation between 1943 and 1972.

Who knew in 1943 that going to work at Hanford or living nearby might cause cancer or other thyroid disease?

Yes, fear of radiation from Japan may be irrational and unscientific. Nevertheless, those fears are real.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Program on tsunami and radiation risks

The Everett Office of Emergency Management will present a workshop on the disaster in Japan, earthquakes, tsunamis, radiation and Everett’s risks from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday in the Weyerhaeuser Room, fourth floor of Everett Station, 3201 Smith Ave. To reserve a place, call 425-257-8111 or email Renee Darnell at rdarnell@ci.everett.wa.us.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Kim Skarda points at her home on a map on Thursday, June 20, 2024 in Concrete, Washington. A community called Sauk River Estates has a very steep slope above it. There is a DNR-approved timber sale that boarders the estate properties, yet they were not consulted about the sale before approval. The community has already appealed the sale and has hired their own geologist to conduct a slope stability report at the site. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Beneath steep slope, Concrete neighbors fear landslides from logging above

Nielsen Brothers plans to cut 54 acres of timber directly behind the community of 83 homes. Locals said they were never consulted.

Law enforcement respond to a person hit by a train near the Port of Everett Mount Baker Terminal on Thursday, June 27, 2024 in Mukilteo, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
2 killed in waterfront train crashes were near Mukilteo ‘quiet zone’

In June, two people were hit by trains on separate days near Mukilteo Boulevard. “These situations are incredibly tragic,” Everett’s mayor said.

Rob Plotnikoff takes a measurement as a part of the county's State of Our Waters survey at Tambark Creek in Bothell, Washington on Monday, July 1, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Snohomish County stream team bushwhacks a path to healthier waterways

This summer, the crew of three will survey 40 sites for the State of Our Waters program. It’s science in locals’ backyards.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Mountlake Terrace in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
4th suspect arrested after Mountlake Terrace home robbery

Police arrested Taievion Rogers, 19, on Tuesday. Prosecutors charged his three alleged accomplices in April.

A 10 acre parcel off of Highway 99, between 240th and 242nd Street Southwest that the city of Edmonds is currently in the process of acquiring on Monday, July 10, 2023 in Edmonds, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Edmonds ditches $37M Landmark public park project off Highway 99

The previous mayor envisioned parks and more in south Edmonds, in a historically neglected area. The new administration is battling budget woes.

Edmonds school official sworn in as Mount Vernon supe

Victor Vergara took his oath of office last week. He was assistant superintendent of equity and student success in Edmonds.

Everett Fire responds to  a medical incident at Northern View Apartments in Everett. (Photo provided by Everett FIre)
Everett firefighters rescue man and dog in fire that displaces 8

It took about an hour for firefighters to extinguish the flames at the Northern View Apartments on Wednesday night.

The Sounder commuter train at Everett Station Wednesday evening on October 9, 2019.   (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Hop a Sounder train from Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds to Mariners games

The next run is Sunday as the M’s face their division foe, the Houston Astros. The train departs Everett at 10:45 a.m.

Boeing 787's in various stages of assembly at Boeing's Everett Plant on April 29, 2017 in Everett. (The Boeing Co.)
Boeing workers signal support for strike if contract talks fail

The union is calling for a 40% raise for workers over the next three years.

A wall diagram shows the “journey of the ballot” at the new Elections Center on Tuesday, July 9, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Snohomish County primary election ballots shipped to registered voters

This year’s primary election will feature races in every corner of the county. Turn in a ballot by Aug. 6 to ensure your vote is counted.

A skeletonized cranium found at Scriber Lake Park in Lynnwood, WA on March 24, 2024. The remains are likely a black male estimated to be over 25 years of age and unknown height and weight. He is estimated to have been deceased at least one year. (Provided by Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office)
Authorities seek help identifying partial skull found in Lynnwood park

A homeless man discovered the skull at Scriber Lake Park. Forensic scientists hope to connect the remains to a missing person.

Guests enjoy the sunset and wind Friday afternoon at Cama Beach Historical State Park on Camano Island on October 25, 2019. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
State commission weighs permanent closure of Cama Beach cabins

The Washington State Parks Commission said the park’s native history, sea level rise and septic issues will figure in its decision.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.