In the wake of the Japanese tsunami and Saturday's explosion at the Fukushima nuclear plant north of Toyko, nearly a quarter of a million people have been evacuated from the area. The immediate tsunami danger has passed, but there is the lingering threat of radiation exposure.
Health officials are encouraging residents to seek temporary shelter and take iodine pills to deal with the potentially deadly consequences of nuclear radiation. The iodine tablets are useful because they protect the thyroid from absorbing excessive radiation in the form of radioactive iodine.
Other than that, there are no specific pills that are recommended for the public in this circumstance. But that doesn't mean that alternative medicine promoters aren't offering "help."
An e-mail titled "Guidelines for Homeopathic Prevention and Treatment of Radiation Sickness and Poisoning" circulated by an Australian group called Homeopathy Plus states:
"(R)adioactive material carried by wind and air currents may spread contaminated material to neighboring islands and countries. For all concerned, there are protective steps that can be taken with homeopathy. Key remedies that have been used either in research or historically to prevent or treat radiation poisoning include the following: Cadmium iodide; Cadmium-sulph; Phosphorus; Strontium-carbonicum; and X-ray. If at risk of radiation exposure, any one of the above remedies may be taken as an emergency response, three times a day in a 30C potency. Do not exceed 6 doses without guidance from your homeopath."
The e-mail has circulated widely, though it's not clear if any Japanese victims have turned to homeopathy.
The advice to use homeopathic treatments on radiation victims is irresponsible and dangerous. Homeopathic preparations have no active ingredients and are therefore worthless. Homeopathic medicines are often so literally watered-down that they don't contain a single molecule of the original medicine or substance: The patient is drinking nothing but water.
Last year, the British Science and Technology Select Committee conducted a comprehensive study into whether homeopathy has any scientific validity. The report was devastating: "Homeopathy is not efficacious, and explanations for why homeopathy would work are scientifically implausible."
Phil Plait, a writer for the Bad Astronomy website (devoted to science-based public policy), said he was concerned that people might take the recommendations from Homeopathy Plus seriously.
"I notice they recommend a 30C dose of X-rays. X-rays are just a form of light," he told Discovery News. "I don't see how zapping water with X-rays and then diluting it gives you anything but what you started with: water. And using that to treat cancer is maybe not your best bet."
This is not the first time that unproven and worthless medical treatments have been offered to natural disaster victims. In the aftermath of last year's devastating earthquakes in Haiti, many people, including faith healers from the Church of Scientology and homeopathic practitioners, offered ineffective medical "cures" to the sick, wounded and dying.
Why would people offer bogus remedies and fake cures to some of the world's most vulnerable people? The alternative medicine practitioners surely believe they are doing good, but desperate people who are exposed to radiation or other carcinogens need proven treatments, not glasses of water.
Photo: A look at the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the disaster in Japan. Credit: Corbis