Healing Our World: More Than Just Your Food

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

More Than Just Your Food

We have forgotten who we are,
we have lost our sense of wonder and connectedness,
we have degraded the earth and our fellow creatures,
and we have nowhere else to go . . .

-- Earth Charter

While there has been considerable media coverage of the controversy over food irradiation, few people know that more than just food has been undergoing exposure to gamma radiation for sterilization during the last 25 years. It is likely that most of you reading this article have goods in your homes that have been irradiated. Hundreds of items are irradiated internationally in the more than 150 irradiation plants around the world.

Items irradiated include decorative potpourri, many wooden objects like jewelry boxes and imported drums, stuffed animals, fishing equipment, leather products, ceramics, soil, brooms, animal feeds, and cardboard and plastic packaging.

Pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and cosmetic creams, gels and powders are being irradiated worldwide as well. Sixty percent of all disposable medical products in the world are being irradiated. Many baby bottle nipples and teething rings are also irradiated.


Irradiator that could be used at the point of sale. (Photo courtesy Rad Source)
While there is there is no proof that many of the products being irradiated could cause harm to human health, little attention has been paid to considering subtle changes that could be occurring in the goods, especially pharmaceuticals.

The proliferation of irradiation plants worldwide is also contributing to keeping a dangerous nuclear industry alive.

The radiation used for product and food irradiation is known as ionizing radiation. Radiation is all around us, part of what is known as the electromagnetic spectrum. This spectrum includes radio waves, heat in the form of infrared radiation, microwaves and even the light that allows us to see the world around us. Ultraviolet rays, x-rays and even gamma radiation are all a part of this electromagnetic spectrum.

Radio waves have very long wavelengths, low frequency and hence, low energy. Microwaves have higher energy, and x-rays and gamma rays have the highest.

When an atom, the fundamental building block of all matter, is irradiated by higher wavelength forms of energy, the atom is changed by knocking an electron from it. The atom then becomes an ion. This ion is not radioactive, but is different from the original atom.


Shopper chooses amongst boxes of irradiated strawberries (Photo courtesy International Atomic Energy Agency)
If a very high energy wave - like that from a uranium or plutonium source - hits an atom, enough energy is transferred to actually split that atom, causing the it to become radioactive.

The sources of radiation allowed for food and product sterilization - cobalt-60, cesium-137, accelerated electrons, and X-rays - cannot make food radioactive because no atoms are split. But there is no question that the irradiation process changes the atoms of the product being irradiated.

All organisms are made up of atoms and molecules. The same irradiation that knocks electrons out of atoms also fatally damages the cells of organisms. That is how insects and bacteria are killed by irradiation.

A low dose of radiation inhibits the sprouting of potatoes, delays the ripening of some fruits and vegetables, kills insects in fruits and stored grains, and kills some parasites in products of animal origin. Higher doses of radiation kills pathogenic microbes responsible for foodborne illnesses.

Here is a summary of the concerns critics have about product irradiation:

  1. There is no question that irradiation changes the structure of the atoms of the products. Some plastics even require radiation in order to create the kind of polymer that is desired. When food is irradiated, many chemicals are formed. Known as radiolytic products, these substances include glucose, formic acid, acetaldehyde, carbon dioxide and others. While these substances may be technically safe by themselves, little research has been done to determine how they affect the quality or energy value of the food.


    This logo indicates a product has been irradiated.
  2. When a food item is irradiated, electrons are moved around in the molecules of the food. These irradiated molecules become known as free radicals. Food irradiation proponents will tell you that these free radicals are harmless. However, it has long been known that free radicals can impair immune system function and have been identified as being responsible for over 60 diseases as well as many aspects of the aging process itself. People concerned with this issue consume considerable amounts of antioxidant tablets to eliminate certain free radicals.

  3. If an item is being irradiated, it means that some form of biological contamination is feared. Using irradiation as a sterilization tool gives the manufacturers or suppliers of the goods no incentive to clean up their operations to remove the contamination at the source. The recently approved irradiation of meat is a classic example of this. Rather than force U.S. meat processors to clean up the deplorable condition in their slaughterhouses, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now allows irradiation. This means that the fecal matter and filth on the meat is sterilized, but still remains on the meat.


    Some of the foods that are irradiated (Photo courtesy International Atomic Energy Agency)
  4. Even the irradiation industry will admit that the nutritional quality of the food is affected. Vitamins A, E, C, K and B-1 are sensitive to irradiation as are many others. Proponents of irradiation will argue that the means of measuring the sensitivity of these micronutrients to irradiation has many variables including heat, the presence of oxygen during irradiation and other factors. True, but these arguments are a distraction from the fact that vitamins ARE affected by irradiation.

  5. There are some studies that suggest human chromosomal damage is possible when eating food that was recently irradiated. Other studies find that chromosomal damage does not result from consuming irradiated foods.
Letís have the new millenium be a time of truth - a time when we demand that the deceitful ways in which we have practiced science for the last few hundred years come to an end.

As citizens, we need to take science back from the biased hands of the corporation and politician and put it back into the hands of the humanitarian.

If only a fraction of the concerns of food and product irradiation critics are true, we have a serious problem on our hands. Do we allow this problem to be ignored in the name of commerce and greed? More than just our food is at stake.


1. The food irradiation industry has its own website. See it at http://www.food-irradiation.com/ and http://www.iaea.or.at/worldatom/inforesource/other/food/index.html

2. Learn more about free radicals in your body and in your food at http://www.staywellvitamins.com/oxygen.htm and http://www.the-scientist.library.upenn.edu/yr1996/sept/research_960930.html

3. Visit Steritech at http://www.steritech.com.au/welcome.htm, an Australian company that specializes in irradiating many products. Learn about the citizen campaign against them at http://www.sea-us.org.au/corpfilez/sterileco.html

4. Learn about many food issues from Biodemocracy at http://www.purefood.org/index.htm. This organization was formerly known as the Pure Food Campaign.

5. Stay in touch with organic farmers through http://web.iquest.net/ofma/

6. Food safety issues are addressed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest at http://www.cspinet.org/foodsafety/index.html

7. Find out who your elected representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them it is time to stop food irradiation because of the potential catastrophic effects if only a fraction of the concerns are true. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html or you can search by state at http://www.webslingerz.com/jhoffman/congress-email.html. You can also find your representatives at http://congress.nw.dc.us/innovate/index.html

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and the Environmental Education Programs Manger and the Manager of Discovery Park for the City of Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. He can be found in his new home in Seattle, wondering if the chair he is siting on was irradiated. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his web site at www.healingourworld.com}