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From the Townsend Letter
July 2011

Radioactive Pollution
by Perry A. Chapdelaine Sr.
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People in the United States complain about our out-of-control medical costs. 30% or more of the medical costs are the result of fossil fuel air pollution.1

We periodically pass through a storm of fear regarding radioactivity. This is especially true whenever a nuclear energy plant experiences problems. Citizens in almost every country throughout the world seem to be prodded into a form of hysteria because a small amount of radioactive particles might blow their way.

Let's look at some facts about radioactive elements, called radionuclides. There are over 60 of them found in nature. One group was formed before the creation of our sun. These are usually very long-lived, such as uranium 235, uranium 238, thorium 232, radium 226, radon 222, and potassium 40.

Each of these long-lived elements has its own unique half-life, the time it takes for half of a given quantity of radioactivity to disappear. Uranium 235 half-life is 7.04 × 108 years (that's 7.04 with 8 zeros behind, or 704,000,000 years). Uranium 238 is 4.47 × 109 years (4,470,000,000 years). Thorium 232 is 1.41 × 1010 years (14,100,000,000). Radium 226 is 1.60 × 103 years (1,600 years). Radon 222 is 3.82 days. Potassium 40 is 1.28 × 109 years (1,280,000,000 years). Potassium 40 will be distributed in our bodies considerably more so than the uranium, thorium, radium, or radon. (There's between 1 and 30 pCi/g – [pCi/g = a measure of the radioactivity – 1 to 30] of 1 gram of potassium radionu­clide that decays at a rate of 3.7−2 disintegration per sec.)

Naturally occurring radioactive material is found almost everywhere. It is found in the air and in soil, and even as radioactive potassium in our own bodies – and also in the potassium iodide pills given to us to protect us from radiation. Radiation – alpha, beta, gamma, and X-rays – is found in public water supplies and foods such as brazil nuts, cereal, and peanut butter.

The average person in the US is exposed to about 360 millirems (mrem) of radiation from natural sources each year. A mrem, or 1/1000 of a rem, is a measure of radiation exposure. More than 80% of this exposure level comes from background radiation sources. Consumer products contribute 10 mrem/year, while living or working in a brick building can add another 70 mrem/ year. Granite, sandstone, cement, limestone concrete, sandstone concrete, dry wallboard, by-product gypsum, natural gypsum, wood, clay brick: each has its own degree of radioactive elements.

A person who smokes one and a half packs of cigarettes per day increases his or her exposure by 8000 mrem/year, while porcelain false teeth can add another 1600 millirem/year.

Another group of radioactive particles formed because of the interaction of some of earth's ele­ments with cosmic rays. Cosmic radiation is everywhere, streaming from outside the solar system. This radiation is in many forms, including high-speed heavy particles, high-energy photons, and muons. When these particles hit our upper atmosphere, some interact with particles in our atmosphere, producing radioactive elements. Most have short half-lives, but some do not. Carbon 14 half-life is 5730 years. Hydrogen 3 (tritium) half-life is 12.3 years. Beryllium 7 half-life is 53.28 days. An average dose of 27 mrem per year is received from cosmic sources, both primary and secondary. This figure doubles for every 6000-foot increase in elevation. Flying adds a few extra mrem to your annual dose, depending upon how often you fly, how high the plane flies, and how long you're in the air. Obviously, astronauts are exposed to radiation when they leave the protection of the Earth's atmosphere and especially when they pass through the Van Allen radiation belt.

Then, of course, there's the group of radiation enhanced or created by humans, a very tiny amount compared to the naturally formed group. These consist of tritium, whose half-life is 12.3 years. Iodine 131 half-life is 8.04 days. Iodine 129 half-life is 1.57 × 107 days (about 43,000 years). Cesium 137 whose half-life is 30.17 years. Strontium 90 with a half-life of 28.78 years. Technetium 99 with half-life of 2.11 × 105 years (211,000 years). Plutonium 239 with half-life of 2.41 × 104 years (24,100 years).

All air, water and soil contain radioactive elements. Indeed, they're even found inside of us, elements that make up our cells, tissues, organs, and finally our bodies.

Let's put this in perspective. Suppose you have a garden that is 10 feet wide by 40 feet wide, and from time to time you must spade the garden half a foot deep. Here's a table showing the approximate amount of radioactive substances you would encounter during each total turnover of the garden:


0.00158 kilograms

1.58 grams


0.0086 kilograms

0.86 grams

Potassium 40

0.00144 kilograms

1.44 grams


0.000002 grams

0.000002 grams


0.0000008 micrograms

0.0000008 micrograms

As you can see, your vegetables will contain some radioactive elements. Silicon, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and virtually the entire periodic table of elements are generally present in smaller or trace quantities.

 It's clear that your crops will pick up some radioactive potassium 40. Potassium is an element that your body must have. The wind will blow some of all of the above elements about when the weather is dry. Rain will wash some out to the neighbor's land, to streams, to lakes or oceans.

Let's look at a truly large farm area growing corn, wheat, soy, or what-have-you. Assume the plowing is 1 square mile by 1 square mile, and 6" deep. During the plowing you would encounter:

uranium 550 kilograms 550,000 grams = 121 pounds (radioactive)
thorium 6000 kilograms 6,000,000 grams = 13,200 pounds (radioactive)
potassium 40 1000 kilograms 1,000,000 grams = 2200 pounds (radioactive)
radium 0.8 grams 0.8 grams
radon 5.5 micrograms 5.5 micrograms

All foods have some small amount of radioactivity. The following table makes relative comparisons between potassium 40 and radium 116 per kilogram of a few produce:

Potassium 40 Radium 226
Banana 3,520 1
Brazil Nuts 5,600 1,000 to 7,000
Carrot 3,400 0.62
White Potatoes 3,400 1 to 2.5
Beer 390 ___
Lima Bean Raw 4,640 2 to 5
Drinking Water __ 0 to 0.17

The Pacific Ocean contains about 6.549 × 1017 cubic meters of water. The Atlantic about 3.095 × 1017 cubic meters. Altogether there's more than 1.3 × 1018 cubic meters of water on our planet. All water contains radioactive elements: uranium, potassium 40, tritium, carbon 14, rubidium 87.

There are over 1500 different radioactive nuclides. Virtually all elements have one or more isotopes, many that are radioactive. Sixty-two radioactive elements were identified in premium coal ash in 1997. Some of these represented small trace elements and some larger.2

The rem is a unit used to derive a quantity called equivalent dose. This relates the absorbed dose in human tissue to the effective biological damage of the radiation. Not all radiation has the same biological effect, even for the same amount of absorbed dose. Equivalent dose is often expressed in terms of thousandths of a rem, or mrem. To determine equivalent dose (rem), you multiply absorbed dose (rad) by a quality factor (Q) that is unique to the type of incident radiation. Many units are broken down into smaller units or expressed as multiples, using standard metric prefixes. As examples, a kilobecquerel (kBq) is 1000 becquerels (Bq), a millirad (mrad) is 10−3 rad (1/1000), a microrem (µrem) is 10−6 rem (1/ 1,000,000), a nanogram is 10−9 grams (1/1,000,000,000), and a picocurie is a 10−12 curies (1/1,000,000 000,000). One Bq is that quantity of radioactive material that will have one transformation in 1 second.

According to Idaho State University's "Radioactivity in Nature," and its use of Merrill Eisenbud's and Tom Gesell's Environmental Radioactivity from Natural, Industrial and Military Sources (Academic Press, 4th ed.) and other sources, the average estimated human exposure or effective dose equivalent from radiation is 360 mrem per adult in the US, broken down as follows:

  µSv mrem
Inhaled (radon and decay products) 2000 200
Other internally deposited radionuclides 390 39
Terrestrial radiation 280 28
Cosmic radiation 270 27
Cosmogenic radioactivity   10 1
Rounded total from natural sources 3000 300
Rounded total from artificial sources 600 60
Total from all sources 3600 360

It is not possible to escape from radioactivity on earth – and much, much harder to do so above our atmosphere. Our bodies – indeed all of earth's life forms – evolved with exposure to radioactivity which might, to some small degree, also be a source of genetic mutations that lead to different species.

Our human bodies, therefore, have some capacity to handle radioactivity but, as with  drowning in water, the body can only handle so much, and that amount depends upon genetics, age, type of radiation, length of exposure and health. Estimated natural radioactivity in our bodies follows:

Total Mass

Daily Intake of Nuclides


90 µg

1.9 µg



30 µg

3 µg


Potassium 40

17 µg

0.39 µg



31 pg

2.3 pg


Carbon 14

22 ng

1.8 ng



0.06 pg

0.003 pg


Polonium 0.2 pg approx.0.6 fg (femtograms)

Our planet is not evenly populated with radioactive materials. High background sources occur in Brazil, India, and China, primarily because of concentrations of certain minerals. Certain black beaches contain high concentrations of radioactive elements.

By now it's easy to understand that those who remind us that it only takes one nuclear disintegration in one cell to began the formation of cancer are speaking from total ignorance. All terrestrial life con­tains radioactive elements including ourselves!

Coal as a Major Source of Radioactivity
When I was in graduate school in Nashville, Tennessee, back in the 1940s, almost all homes and businesses used a soft coal for heating. I roomed on the third floor of a dormitory. Room windows were left open for temperature control during winter time. When I wakened in the morning I could barely see detail in the walls across from me, such was the amount of coal smoke lingering everywhere. This common black apparition came about because Nashville lay in a kind of bowl that collected the heavy coal smoke unless a goodly wind was blowing. Eventually Nashville's city fathers solved this problem, and now the city is clean both day and night. My point is this: coal smoke has long been considered the primary pollution from the burning of coal. As far back as the earliest Industrial Revolution beginning in England, thick, black smoke from the burning of coal from steam engines, railroad engines, and so on have been identified in the minds of most as the major unavoidable source of air pollution.

Next, coal was blamed for the quickened warming of our planet. Coal contains among many other elements sulfur and produces sulfur dioxide and other sulfur products – plus carbon dioxide (CO2). The concentrations of CO2 and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since 1750. These levels are much higher than at any time during the last 800,000 years, the period for which reliable data has been extracted from ice cores. The last time CO2values were higher than this was 20 million years ago. About three-quarters of the increase in CO2 is caused by the burning of fossil fuels over the past 20 years. Most of the rest is due to land-use change, particularly deforestation.

The US has an amount of coal reserves greater than any other nation on earth, 507.7 billion tons. Another 1223.2 billion tons has been identified and also inferred to exist. Yet to be discovered, is an estimated 2237.4 billion tons more.4 Coal is also the chief source for electricity.

Coal is mined in 100 countries. China, India, and the US were the top producers of coal in 2006, the US accounting for 38%. Nine hundred and thirty tons of our recoverable coal is equivalent to 4116 billion barrels of oil according to the Energy Information Administration. During 2007 the US burned 7.075 billion tons of coal. This is equivalent in heat content to 57,000,000 barrels of oil per day, or 365 × 57,000,000 = 21,375.000,000 barrels of oil per year.

The largest reserves of coal are in the US, Russia, China, India, and Australia.

British Petroleum estimated in 2006 that there was an estimated 909,064 million tons of proven coal reserves worldwide. The proven reserves worldwide would last the world for an estimated 147 years. (When I was in grade school, I was told that the US had enough coal to last for 1000 years. Boy! Has our usage rate gone up? Or what? Oh, sure, increased population and industrialization! At a 5% growth per annum this would be reduced to 45 years, or until 2051.)

The primary composition of coal is carbon, sulfur, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. We've already mentioned 62 radioactive elements found in coal ash and smokestacks.

Coal began millions of years ago as fallen plant matter that piled up beneath acidic water in wide shallow seas of the Carboniferous period. Huge peat bogs were eventually buried by sediments and these layers of plant materials metamorphosed into coal, a solid material. Peat, a precursor to hard coal, is used in Ireland and Finland. It's a good heat source when dried from the moisture of the bogs from which it's mined. Lignite is a "stony" coal, hard to get started (I remember), but once it is started burns and produces considerable heat. Bituminous coal is a dense black mineral. Its heat value (BTUs) is usually higher than peat or lignite, which is why it's railroaded in by the thousands of boxcar loads to every coal-burning electric generation plant. Anthracite, usually glossy and black, is most often used for commercial space heating and residential heating. One should mention slate, which is very hard to ignite but can be processed to burn and even to obtain oil.

Naturally, all classifications are subject to differences found in geographical regions and to the past history of each deposit.

Most everyone knows that coal is dug from the ground either in seams that run beneath the surface, or the surface itself is stripped off until the coal seams are reached. Coal can also be used to make coke, where the volatile constituents are driven off by baking in an oven without oxygen at temperatures as high as 1000 ºC (1832 ºF). The reaction of coal and natural gas produces ethanol. Syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas, can be manufactured from coal, and this can also be converted to gasoline by a liquefaction process. Coal can also be refined to remove moisture and certain pollutants.

It's clear that the use of coal is a necessary part of our environment. But, most discussion of its harmful effects center around CO2 emissions and, to some extent, the products of sulfur. Here are some of the downsides to our generous use of coal:

  1.  Burning coal generates hundreds of millions of tons of waste products, including fly ash, bottom ash, flue gas desulfurization sludge that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic, and other heavy metals. Some of this sludge is used for landfill and even for farmland, never mind the arsenic poisons.

  2.  High-sulfur coal produces acid rain. Acid rain acidifies our oceans and lakes and has other delete­rious consequences.

  3.  Mining coal disturbs groundwater and pollutes our water tables and also affects the flow of rivers and other land uses.

  4. Coal-fired power plants shorten nearly 24,000 lives a year in the US, including 2800 from lung cancer. How does this compare against cigarette smoking which causes 443,000 deaths.5 Apparently only 0.6% of the total lung cancer deaths are caused by coal emissions, but 5% of deaths overall are attributed to coal-fired plants.

  5.  Coal-fired power plants emit mercury, selenium, and arsenic, which are harmful to human health and the environment. The Environmental Protection Department says that there's no lower limit to the amount of mercury that humans can tolerate. And radioactive effects are not yet factored in!

  6.  Burning coal is the largest release of CO2 in the air. There are hundreds of coal fires burning throughout the world. Underground they're not only difficult to locate but almost impossible to extinguish. Coal fires in China, for example, burn 109 million tons per year, emitting 360 metric tons of CO2. It's been estimated that 2% to 3% of annual worldwide production of CO2 comes from uncontrolled coal burning. This is equivalent to coal that has been burned in coal-fired plants from that carried by all of the trucks and trains in the US. These underground fires are often started by surface grass fires, trash fires, lightning, or even spontaneous combustion. The Australian Burning Mountain, originally believed to be a volcano, has been burning coal for 5000 years! 200 million tons per year of coal has burned underground naturally for millions of years!6

OK, so you know all of this. But to replace coal, the world would need to build annually 1150 nuclear plants and tap 70 trillion cubic feet of gas annually. Here and there some coal-fired electric plants are scrubbing some of their emissions. That's a good thing. However, the persistent and large radioactive fallout from the burning of coal is seldom mentioned. Let's look at some further facts. According to US Geological Survey Bulletin 1823, potassium found in fly ash samples taken in 1985 represented a concentration of 0.0748 %. This is not surprising, as potassium is the eighth most abundant element in the earth's crust, estimated to be between 2.0% and 2.5%, just slightly less abundant than its alkali cousin, sodium.

There are three naturally occurring isotopes of potassium: potassium 39, potassium 40 and potas­sium 41. It's radioactive potassium 40 that we're interested in.

In any quantity of potassium, there will be 0.0118% of potassium 40 with a half-life of 1,260,000,000 years. It follows, therefore, that a given unit of coal will contain 0.00078 × 0.000188 = 0.00000014664 units of radioactive potassium. That's 1.4664 × 10−7 units of potassium, or, say 1.4664 × 10−5 percent.

Nothing to worry over, is there? The human body consists of 0.012% considerably more radioactive potassium 40. The average human who weighs 70 kilograms (150 pounds) has 140 grams (5 ounces) of potassium in his or her body. Normal daily intake of potassium is about 3.3 grams (0.1 ounce). Since potassium occurs in all plants, humans normally do not have any problems getting enough of the element in their daily diet. Multiply 5 ounces by 0.012% and find that the human body contains about 6/10,000ths of an ounce of radioactive potassium and takes in about 0.000012 ounces of potassium each day. Some estimate that the human body averages potassium intake of about 2.5 grams per day. This, they say, amounts to 80 Bq, producing 80 radioactive decays each second. 140 grams of potassium in a normal male contains about 4400 Bq, or about 4400 disintegrations per second. Considering that potassium decays near the interstitial fluids, about 98% is in the body within the cells. Thus at least 98% of the disintegrations take place within the body cells and are potentially able to alter our DNA.8

According to Wikipedia there was 6,743,786,000 tons of coal consumed in 2006. Consumption is expected to increase 48% to 9.98 billion tons by 2030. 6,743,786,000 tons × 2000 = 1,348,757,000,000 pounds of coal consumed per year worldwide (2006).

0.00000014664 of radioactive potassium per pound of coal times 1,348,757,000,000 pounds of coal consumed worldwide annually = 19,780 pounds of radioactive Potassium spread into our environment annually – and growing! (Don't forget its half-life is 1,260,000,000 years. Compounded accumulation with this disintegration rate becomes significant.)

Potassium is but one isotope that might affect us from the burning of coal. Most of the elements from the periodic table of elements have isotopes. The following are additional elements that are released from coal plants listed as milligrams/gram of coal ash, according to the US Geological Survey Bulletin 18239: (These figures vary according to type and location of coal measured.)

The radionuclides of all of these emissions significantly add to our worldwide radioactive exposure. Are you interested in the contribution of radioactivity by all of the isotopes of all of these elements? Simply find the percentage of the radioactive isotope in each pound of coal of a given element above and add all them up along with my figure of 19,780 pounds of potassium 40. When you're done with this afternoon exercise, consider that we have yet to figure radioactive contributions of oil and gas. You'll agree, I believe, that Homosapiens is saturated with radioactivity and that daily we're thickening the brew!

Element           Concentration in mg/g














































Perry A. Chapdelaine Sr. is CEO/secretary of the nonprofit foundation the Arthritis Trust of America, founded in 1982. This organization tells people how to get well from so-called incurable rheumatoid diseases, refers patients to physicians, and provides books and articles on its website, Chapdelaine has BA and MA degrees with majors in mathematics and minors in chemistry, physics, and psychology. He writes science fiction and other genres under the Chapdelaine name and arthritis medical books and articles under the name Anthony di Fabio. Chapdelaine has subscribed to Townsend Letter since the very first issue.


  1. Wang B. Coal power and waste details [blog entry]. Next Big Future.
  2. Palmer CA, ed. Chemical Analysis of Argonne Premium Coal Samples. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 2144. 1997. Available at:
  3. Radiation Information Network. Radioactivity in nature [online article]. Idaho State University.
  4. About coal [online article].
  5. Smoking [Web page]. National Cancer Institute.
  6. 200 million tons per year of coal has burned underground naturally for million years [blog entry]. Indymedia Climate.
  7. Golightly DW, Simon FO, eds. Methods for Sampling and Inorganic Analysis of Coal. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1823. Last modified: 14 Feb 2006. Available at:
  8. Rowland B. Potassium, a radioactive element? [online article]. Our Radioactive Planet.
  9. Golightly DW, Simon FO. Op cit.

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