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Radioactive Bananas: It’s What’s For Breakfast

I do enjoy a fresh banana for breakfast. It feels filling and satisfying and seems to offer a bit of a start-the-day boost. Perhaps that’s from the sugars. Or perhaps it’s the radioactivity—that seemed to work for Spider-Man, so why not us regular folks? On further thought, Curious George and King Kong seemed to do alright on a healthy intake of bananas, too. But let’s not blow by that earlier statement. Come on, man, are bananas really radioactive?

Radioactivity in a Banana Peel

Yeah, I know we’re playing fast and loose with idioms, but to fully explore the radioactive breakfast food question, we need to understand the Cliff Notes on radioactivity. We know that people get all weird about it. Some guy named Schrodinger even used the concept of radioactivity to help postulate a cat being both alive and dead at the same time.

To describe radioactivity in a friendly way for those among us who are less durable in spirit, envision an unstable atom. As it decays, things like electrons, neutrons, alpha particles or maybe gamma rays may leave the premises and venture forth into the world. That’s what radiation is. It doesn’t sound too threatening because atoms are really, really small. The problem is that these orphaned particles carry energy that can break down (ionize) other particles they encounter. When a whole bunch of tiny things all wreck untold numbers of other tiny things like falling dominoes, the situation can get hairy.

In the face of radiation exposure, we fret about things like radiation sickness, cancer and even burns. That happens when radiation destroys and alters organic molecules.

Potassium is Elemental

Sure, Mom always reminded you to eat foods like bananas and spinach to “get your potassium,” so if Mom said it, we definitely needed it. And a banana has about 425 milligrams of potassium. Groups of potassium atoms always have a small sub-clique of non-conformists called K-40. Remember high school chemistry? K is the symbol for potassium. K-40 is an unstable, radioactive mutant.

Anyway, K-40 is radioactive but decidedly lackadaisical in the commitment area, having a half-life of something like a billion years. Without boring the potassium out of you, that means hardly any radiation is emitted from a banana, at least in our lifetimes. And as we all know from experience, a fresh banana almost goes terrible within 12 minutes after getting home from the store.

Bananas = Instant Death?

I know what you’re thinking. These idiots at The Practical Guide to Life just ruined my breakfast, and future table-side bananas foster dessert experiences. Will you now feel electrons blasting through your body, headed en masse for the nearest nuclear bomb factory, every time you enjoy a banana?

Nah, and the level of exposure you get from a banana is less than the odds of a Congressman reaching for the lunch tab. Barely. Because of that unimpressive half-life, a banana only emits about .01 millirems of radiation. To put that in perspective, an X-ray doses you with somewhere between a few and hundreds of millirems, depending on the type. Flying across the country will blast you with 30 or more millirems—round trip. And your granite countertop leaks 0.1 millirems per year.

So enjoy your banana daiquiri. Just don’t leave it on the granite countertop too long. In a billion years or so, it just might become dangerous.

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