By Nicole Bode
DNAinfo Senior Editor
MANHATTAN — I followed the news of the Japanese earthquake and its aftermath with horror for those who lived near the quake and the damaged nuclear power plants.
But when I read the New York State Department of Health's statement Wednesday confirming that trace levels of Japanese radiation were found at a dozen locations around the state, I immediately started to worry about those of us on this side of the globe.
What does a trace amount of radiation really mean? Where is the radiation physically located, and in what form? And should I be afraid even though the Health Department says not to worry?
According to Dr. Barry Rosenstein, a Professor of Radiation Oncology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, radiation exposure from Japan has been a common fear among New Yorkers since Japan's earthquake and tsunami disaster. But Rosentstein, who's a radiation biologist and studies the effects that radiation exposure has on the health of living things, said the fears are vastly unfounded.
"From everything that I've seen, certainly in this country and what has blown over here essentially from Japan … it's quite undetectable and the risks are very low," Rosenstein said. "Obviously, it's a very different story in Japan."
Rosenstein said that while no level of radiation is 100 percent safe, the amount of radioactive isotopes that have traveled here from Japan are likely at levels significantly less than the average X-ray, and are probably no more dangerous than the normal level of radiation we're all exposed to on a daily basis coming from outer space, or residue left over from above-ground nuclear testing decades ago.
That the Health Department alerted New Yorkers to local radiation levels should come as a "reassurance" that the growing number of radioactive sensors in place around the city — largely intended to head off terrorists' dirty bombs — are calibrated to incredibly sensitive levels, he said.
"I know sometimes that anything is detected it sets off alarms but really it shouldn't," Rosenstein said, adding that some of the city's radiation sensors are so sensitive that some of his hospital's patients had to start carrying letters from their doctors after the leftover radiation in their systems from treatments started setting off alarms at subways and airports.
Rosenstein said New Yorkers who are worried about radiation exposure from Japan are better off worrying about another form of domestic radiation: high levels of radiation in medical scans.
Experts in the field, including Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, have long warned about the adverse effects of the rising number of high-level radiation treatments, including CT scans, which carry a much higher rate of radiation than traditional X-rays and have been linked to cancer, Rosenstein said.
According to the American Cancer Society, while low-level radiation exposure has not been directly linked to cancer, "most scientists and regulatory agencies agree that even small doses of ionizing radiation increase cancer risk, although by a very small amount."
"In general, the risk of cancer from radiation exposure increases as the dose of radiation increases," the organization writes on their website.
If New Yorkers are concerned about radiation exposure, they should concentrate on limiting their exposure to CT scans as much as possible, unless medically necessary, Rosenstein added.
"You should probably just ask your doctor or radiologist who's recommending it, 'do I really need this?'" he said.