Radiation and Japanese Sea Salt

Radiation and Japanese Sea Salt

The Japanese are the standard bearers for artisan salt, obsessing over the quality of their materials and tools, and bringing a level of craft to the process unrivaled in the world. The result is salts with flavor like no other.

There is a fear among many consumers that radiation from the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactor disaster in March of 2011 is a threat to the safety of products produced in Japan. Many news stories have been published about radiation even reaching the United States.

So, what threat does this incident pose to our salt? None. At least, far less than the threat posed by the banana in your purse or your next dental exam.

The idea of radiation conjures up dreadful images of fallout and nuclear meltdown. If radiation from Japan is reaching California, Japan itself must be riddled with it, right?

There are two types of radiation – ionizing radiation and non-ionizing. Non-ionizing radiation includes visible light, heat, microwaves, radio waves, and most ultra-violet light. This isn’t the kind we normally worry about, though it can be dangerous in large quantities (think burning).

Ionizing radiation is the scary kind. It packs enough energy to knock electrons away from the atoms and molecules in our bodies and damage to our DNA. X-rays, gamma rays, and nuclear radiation are all ionizing.

Is there Radiation in our Food?

We’re all exposed to small amounts of ionizing radiation every day, and our bodies have adapted to repair the damage. A little of it comes from powerful cosmic rays piercing the atmosphere. The higher up you live, the more radiation you’re exposed to. Medical procedures like dental X-Rays and CT scans expose us to radiation more than any other source.

There are tiny amounts of radiation in our food, but not so much in salt. A little radiation comes from unstable isotopes of potassium, like in a banana. A little more comes from carbon 14, an unstable isotope that's found in all life on earth.

Common Types of Radiation Exposure
Activity Radiation Exposure (mSv)
Chest X-Ray 0.05
Ten hour plane flight 0.03
CT Scan 10
Average Worldwide Annual Background Dose 2.4
Annual dose to nuclear worker 1.0
Causes short-term radiation sickness, but not death 1,000

The standard measurement for ionizing radiation is the sievert. The natural radiation in the environment varies around the world depending on factors like altitude and the elements in the earth. This is known as background radiation.

The average background dose in the United States is slightly higher than the worldwide average – about 2.95 mSv a year, according to Princeton University. Medical treatment and smoking can increase this number. If you live in the United States, you can estimate your own background radiation exposure here.

The average Japanese person experiences average background radiation – even after you include the radiation from Hiroshima, Nagesaki, and Fukushima.

No one is as sensitive to the dangers of nuclear radiation as the Japanese, having suffered tremendous devastation from nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese have hundreds of meters all around their country designed to detect even the slightest change in radiation level. While radiation levels remain high around the Fukushima plant, radiation levels in the rest of Japan are normal, and not dangerous.

So go ahead and avoid eating Japanese salt, but you're 1,500 times more likely to die of boredom from your regular salt.