Next Time You’re in a Nuclear Meltdown, You Might Want to Eat Some Broccoli

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The Silkwood Shower of the future might be a plate of vegetables.

November 4, 2013

Willy Blackmore

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, LA Weekly, and elsewhere.
Broccoli May Protect People From Radiation Sickness
(Living in Monrovia/ Flickr)

When Hollywood eventually gets around to cannibalizing Silkwood, the Meryl Streep-starring 1983 film about corporate malfeasance at a plutonium plant in Oklahoma, a vegetable may end up playing a role in the infamous shower scene.

Instead of having Streep’s character abraded with a stiff brush after radiation exposure, a new version of the Mike Nichols movie might show the leading lady locked in a room full of broccoli, eating plate after plate of the cruciferous vegetable.

That’s if the initial research published last month by a group of scientists from Georgetown University Medical Center proves to be as applicable to humans as it is to mice. The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that broccoli, long championed for its cancer-fighting properties, may be uniquely equipped to help prevent and treat radiation sickness.

The Silkwood shower-like chemical hiding within the vegetable, a radioprotector, is known as diindolylmethane (DIM), which blocks healthy cells from irradiation. According to the report, the chemical “protected rodents against lethal doses of total body irradiation . . . whether DIM dosing was initiated before or up to 24 hours after radiation.”

The survival rate was 40 percent for mice who were given an initial dose of the radioprotector within 4 hours, and 30 percent for those who received their first DIM after 24 hours.

The research points to another application outside of an accidental radiation exposure context that could change the way cancer is treated. While the DIM protects healthy cells, it leaves cancerous cells unprotected, leaving them to fry. It’s conceivable that giving cancer patients DIM (or just a whole ton of broccoli?) could help with “preventing or mitigating late normal tissue damage to partial body radiation exposures” during chemotherapy. Professor Michael Fenech, who studies nutrigenomics, told the Australian website News.com.au that the study hinted that DIM could “allow higher doses of radiation to be used to increase the certainty that the cancer is eliminated.”

If broccoli’s growing array of health benefits—it’s also been credited with, to varying degrees, protecting heart vessels, decreasing the risk of bladder cancer, fighting arthritis and helping prevent skin cancer—hasn’t convinced you to move from the President George Bush-led camp of devoted haters and become its champion, a la President Barack Obama, then try cooking it this way.

Even if you don’t like it, you might be better prepared to weather the nuclear fallout.

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