October 13, 1985
Dear Bruce Beach:
I am starting to understand why the information you want is not in literature. The most obvious, the one you are well aware off, is that experts plan to eat stored food. There is enough of it around in North America. I have seen the problem of food discussed in regard to England - their worry is that there just wouldn't be enough food of any kind to feed the surviving population. Therefore, measuring radioactivity in food is not the major problem.
If the attack came at harvest time, in most areas the food wouldn't be harvested because of the external radioactivity. If it came in spring, the plants would be killed or stunted over large areas. There probably would be some areas where there could be some harvest. Here you would have to compare the radioactivity of the washed or the processed product to what you had in stored food. Storage of the fresh food for a few more months might bring the radioactivity down to a safe level. A number of experts have implied that if you survived the first year, you would survive. I don't know a thing about "nuclear winter".
It comes down to measuring radioactivity (fallout contamination) in stored food. It is possible you might get large quantities that have no contamination at all or less than double of normal background. Then you can use a label "no significant radioactive contamination". A Geiger-Mueller counter would be very good for this. If you plan to look after thousands of people, you would need a lot of them.
The problem starts when the food is substantially contaminated. What kind of classification would be meaningful to the general public? There also would be a social problem. You and I might be willing to eat the more contaminated food so that our children and grandchildren could eat less contaminated food. But what about people in thirties and forties who wouldn't have children in the group you were working with or didn't have children at all. Would they take risks for the future benefit of society? At present, I don't find this a very prevalent trait in our society. If things were really scarce, one would also have to protect the individuals whose skills would be essential for the survival of the greatest number of people.
Back to science. You would like to have figures on bars of food telling how much you could eat without getting radiation sickness. For example, a label on a wheat bag saying you can eat 1 lb/day for a year (indefinitely) and not get radiation sickness. To arrive at this figure one would have to take into account the decay rate and the rate at which it is accumulating in the body. Assume that the consumer has no accumulated radioactivity. Despite the oversimplifications to the extent that you might consider it inadequate, I have not come across anything as complicated in the scientific literature. Needless to say I can't do these calculations.
I will be asking this question of a number of health physicists and see if they theoretically could make some approximations and provide us with a method of doing it, and second, if they would be willing to do it.
Another approach. A Geiger counter would be calibrated against a certain radionuclide (whatever standard you had available), let us say cesium. Now we could have a label on a wheat bag saying "on this date it has the equivalent of X mc of cesium/lb" (meaning, if all the activity measured by the Geiger counter was due to cesium, that is how much it would be; I have invented a new unit). I would have to find somebody who would be willing to estimate how many rads of body burden it would result in if you ate one lb of it. This would have to be modified by (1) what time interval after the measurement was done you started to eat it, (2) the quantity you are eating, (3) how many days you will be eating it, and (4) even the length of time after the explosion has some effect. Next week you get a bag of corn with Y mc/lb of cesium equivalents. The following week it might be back to wheat with a higher level of contamination than before. In effect, each person would have to keep a daily track of their body burden. All of this ignores the external radiation you had received or will be receiving, what internal radiation you had received from inhalation and ingestion (water and other foods) or will be receiving, age of person, weight of person, persons nutritional state and health. Are you starting to understand why this information is not available?
In some ways it might be the best to say by what factor a certain food is above the normal background radiation of the world. There would have to be some chart where one could read off what it would be a certain number of days after testing. This could be related to rough categories for eating indefinetely: completely safe for everybody at 1 lb/day, slight danger to children and pregnant women, danger to children and pregnant women and slight danger to others, danger for everybody. One problem would be that as time went on it would be harder and harder to get a normal background reading. There is no way of getting around that people would be eating different quantities of varying concentration at different times.
My personal reaction is to keep it relative and eat whatever has less ticks with a Geiger counter. If you didn't like the number of ticks, you wouldn't have any choice anyway. Starving to death isn't an easy way to die either. If one looked only for what was relatively better, accurate standardization of a Geiger counter wouldn't be as important. You would need a lot of Geiger counters and a lot of people who understood enough about radioactivity to use a Geiger counter in a meaningful way. I see education of people as one of the biggest problems. How many people do you know in your town at present who know properties of radiation? To how many people would it be meaningful if you quantified the radioactivity?
You were willing to consider going the whole way and getting a spectrometer. That way you would know exactly how much of what you got. Dr. Prudham's question was what good would would it do to you if you did have that information? I couldn't answer that question. If you are still considering such a possibility, I would like you to answer the question, in case someone asks it of me again.
Dr. Eaton's comment was that there are so many parameters that it is impossible to work with something like that. He expressed his sympathy to me when I said that you wanted definite figures.
Since there are more than 10 variables, there are more than 100 possibilities. Judging from the literature, there certainly should be a few people who could take one or two variables and come up with some figures. The only problem is that they would not fit the other 99 cases.
I certainly won't be able to provide you with the information you want, but I am getting close to being able to tell you who are the people who would have the best understanding of the subject. Some of them are acknowledged at the end of the book "Nuclear War Survival Skills".
Hopefully, we come across somebody who is willing to play around for a few days and see if he can come up with a way of quantifying the relative danger of contaminated food.
I have written some 14 letters and I will have more written by the time you get this letter.
You have expressed quite an interest in I-131 in milk and the possibility of decontamination. It is not something that I would recommend. If you will have to stay in your bunker for 6 weeks, the cows would probably be dead. If there are cows and there are people to milk them, the dairy plants are also standing. Convert the milk to canned milk, powdered milk, sterile milk (the kind you can buy in stores now) or cheese and wait until the I-131 decays. Meanwhile, pass a "law" that all canned milk and powdered milk on hand has to be reserved for children under 1 year of age. If the supply is greater than what babies would need for next 3 months (if the cows are alive and there is a prospect of returning to normal), older children could have milk too. If there was plenty of fresh milk, adults might drink it, provided they took KI tablets. (I personally don't see why anybody would want to do it.) A decontamination plant would have to be completely operational before the disaster, otherwise there wouldn't be enough time to get it going before the danger would be over. Besides, there might not be any milk anyway.
The reason why there is so much literature on I-131 is because it is one of the greatest dangers from nuclear power plants. I will find out if the Bruce Nuclear Plant is of the type that could give off large quantities of I-131.
This gives you an idea of what I am doing. You might want to see me. I will be available next week, I will be visiting my relatives in Michigan this Thursday.
Aina J. Shapley