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As American families scramble to procure potassium iodide tablets and to learn all they can about the health effects of radiation exposure, I have been at first baffled, and eventually irate over the lack of intelligent truthful and accurate reporting on this issue from the mainstream press. Scouring the web daily for good and helpful easy to read and understand articles on the topic of radiation exposure, I have noted with alarm and dismay that our US news media is putting out a steady stream of conflicting, confusing, incomplete and misleading articles on this topic.
American media outlets, elected local officials, Barack Obama: Get your story straight!
As the Los Angeles County health official was just quoted as saying that iodine pills are not needed, the US Surgeon General was quoted the same day saying just the opposite. To make matters worse our own clearly incompetent and clueless Commander-in-Chief chimed in with the L.A. officials’ remarks, reiterating that “no nuclear fallout would reach the U.S”. Since when is Barack Obama a soothsayer on the nuances of the pacific jet stream? It’s an ill-informed misstatement at least, and an overt blunder at worst to just assume that “no radioactive fallout will reach this country.” How absurd for him to make such an ill informed comment at this particular time. It does nothing to bolster the people’s flagging faith in this man leadership, which is always suspiciously missing in action when needed.
It’s just one more WTF moment in observing the apparent incompetence of elected US public high officials in dealing adequately with a very serious potential national health crisis that is unfolding hourly. Minimizing the imminent threat of radiation clouds that could blow over the USA mainland and even stall over certain regions seems more than a little bit wicked to me.
What in the hell is our local and national leadership thinking at this urgent moment? Are local public officials actually trying to convince Americans NOT to look at the potential nuclear fallout elephant in the living room? For God’s sake, why?
No one in their right mind, as far as I am concerned, should be telling Americans NOT to procure supplies of potassium iodide tablets, yet that is exactly what one Los Angeles County public health official was just quoted as saying. Honestly, were it not for the UK, Canadian and Australian press, I would be hard pressed to locate good educational materials on the topic of radiation exposure at all.
Why are our health and public safety leaders sticking their heads in the sand at this particular moment, when serious and strenuous national leadership and a unified health and safety message for the American public is so desperately needed?
I’d like to thank the BBC, Australian and Canadian press for their helpful essays and reporting on both the nuclear events in Japan as they occurred, and the possible adverse health effects of exposure to airborne radiation. I could not locate a single article like this one below in the US press. What’s wrong with that picture?
Chase Kyla Hunter
Nausea and vomiting often begin within hours of exposure, followed by diarrhoea, headaches and fever.
After the first round of symptoms, there may be a brief period with no apparent illness, but this may be followed within weeks by new, more serious symptoms.
At higher levels of radiation, all of these symptoms may be immediately apparent, along with widespread – and potentially fatal – damage to internal organs.
Exposure to a radiation dose of four gray will typically kill about half of all healthy adults.
For comparison, radiation therapy for cancer typically involves several doses of between one and seven gray at a time – but these doses are highly controlled, and usually specifically targeted at small areas of the body.
|Source: : See http://worldnuclear.org/auswahl.cfm?select=1|
|2 mSv/yr (millisieverts per year)||Typical background radiation experienced by everyone (average 1.5 mSv in Australia, 3 mSv in North America)|
|9 mSv/yr||Exposure by airline crew flying New York-Tokyo polar route|
|20 mSv/yr||Current limit (averaged) for nuclear industry employees|
|50 mSv/yr||Former routine limit for nuclear industry employees. It is also the dose rate which arises from natural background levels in several places in Iran, India and Europe|
|100 mSv/yr||Lowest level at which any increase in cancer is clearly evident.|
|350 mSv/lifetime||Criterion for relocating people after Chernobyl accident|
|1,000 mSv single dose||Causes (temporary) radiation sickness such as nausea and decreased white blood cell count, but not death. Above this, severity of illness increases with dose|
|5,000 mSv single dose||Would kill about half those receiving it within a month|
How is radiation sickness treated?
The first thing to do is to try to minimise further contamination by removing clothes and shoes, and gently washing the skin with soap and water.
Drugs are available that increase white blood-cell production to counter any damage that may have occurred to the bone marrow, and to reduce the risk of further infections due to immune-system damage.
There are also specific drugs that can help to reduce the damage to internal organs caused by radioactive particles.
How does radiation have an impact on health?
Radioactive materials that decay spontaneously produce ionising radiation, which has the capacity to cause significant damage to the body’s internal chemistry, breaking the chemical bonds between the atoms and molecules that make up our tissues.
The body responds by trying to repair this damage, but sometimes it is too severe or widespread to make repair possible. There is also a danger of mistakes in the natural repair process.
Regions of the body that are most vulnerable to radiation damage include the cells lining the intestine and stomach, and the blood-cell producing cells in the bone marrow.
The extent of the damage caused is dependent on how long people are exposed to radiation, and at what level.
Radiation and cancer
- Most experts agree even small doses of ionising radiation – as low as 100 millisieverts – can increase the risk of cancer, but by a very small amount.
- In general, the risk of cancer increases as the dose of radiation increases. Exposure to one sievert of radiation is estimated to increase the lifetime risk of fatal cancer by around 5%.
- The thyroid gland and bone marrow are particularly sensitive to ionising radiation.
- Leukemia, a type of cancer that arises in the bone marrow, is the most common radiation-induced cancer. Leukemias may appear as early as a few years after radiation exposure.
- Other cancer can also result from exposure to radiation, but may not develop for at least a decade. These include cancers of the lung, skin, thyroid, breast and stomach.
What are the most likely long-term health effects?
Cancer is the biggest long-term risk. Usually when the body’s cells reach their “sell-by date” they commit suicide. Cancer results when cells lose this ability, and effectively become immortal, continuing to divide and divide in an uncontrolled fashion.
The body has various processes for ensuring that cells do not become cancerous, and for replacing damaged tissue.
But the damage caused by exposure to radiation can completely disrupt these control processes, making it much more likely that cancer will result.
Failure to properly repair the damage caused by radiation can also result in changes – or mutations – to the body’s genetic material, which are not only associated with cancer, but may also be potentially passed down to offspring, leading to deformities in future generations. These can include smaller head or brain size, poorly formed eyes, slow growth and severe learning difficulties.
Are children at greater risk?
Potentially yes. Because they are growing more rapidly, more cells are dividing, and so the potential for things to go wrong is greater.
Following the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in the Ukraine in 1986, the World Health Organization recorded a dramatic increase in thyroid cancer among children in the vicinity.
This was because the radioactive materials released during the accident contained high levels of radioactive iodine, a material that accumulates in the thyroid.
What risk does Fukushima pose currently?
The Japanese authorities have recorded a radiation level of up 400 millisieverts per hour at the nuclear plant itself.
A sievert is essentially equivalent to a gray, but tends to be used to measure lower levels of radiation, and for assessing long-term risk, rather than the short-term acute impact of exposure.
Professor Richard Wakeford, an expert in radiation exposure at the University of Manchester, said exposure to a dose of 400 millisieverts was unlikely to cause radiation sickness – that would require a dose of around twice that level (one sievert/one gray).
However, it could start to depress the production of blood cells in the bone marrow, and was likely to raise the lifetime risk of fatal cancer by 2-4%. Typically, a Japanese person has a lifetime risk of fatal cancer of 20-25%.
Prof Wakeford stressed only emergency workers at the plant were at risk of exposure to such a dose – but it was likely that they would only be exposed for short periods of time to minimise their risk.
The level of exposure for the general population, even those living close to the plant, was unlikely to be anywhere near as high.
How can the Japanese authorities minimise the cost to human health?
Prof Wakeford said that provided the Japanese authorities acted quickly, most of the general population should be spared significant health problems.
He said in those circumstances the only people likely to be at risk of serious health effects were nuclear workers at the plant or emergency workers exposed to high levels of radiation.
He said the top priority would be to evacuate people from the area and to make sure they did not eat contaminated food. The biggest risk was that radioactive iodine could get into their system, raising the risk of thyroid cancer.
To counter that risk, people – in particular children – could be given tablets containing stable iodine which would prevent the body absorbing the radioactive version.
The Japanese already have a lot of iodine in their natural diet, so that should help too.
How does Fukushima compare to Chernobyl?
Professor Gerry Thomas, who has studied the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, said: “It is very unlikely that this will turn into anything that resembles Chernobyl.
“In Chernobyl you had a steam explosion which exposed the reactor core, which meant you had a lot of radiation shooting up into the atmosphere.”
Prof Thomas said although the Chernobyl disaster had led to a rise in thyroid cancer cases, the only people affected were those living in the immediate area of the explosion and who were young at the time.
- Radiation exposure: a quick guide to what each level means (guardian.co.uk)
- Factbox: How much radiation is dangerous? (reuters.com)
- Anti-Radiation Pills Bought as U.S. Fears Rise (abcnews.go.com)
- Radiation’s health effects (cbc.ca)
- How Does Nuclear Radiation Harm the Body? (livescience.com)
- Factbox: How much radiation is dangerous? (thegreatone22.wordpress.com)
- How much radiation is dangerous? (newstatesman.com)
- Radiation Exposure Guide: How Much is Too Much? (nowpublic.com)
- UPDATE: Major radiation release at Fukushima Daiichi (blogs.nature.com)
- Careful, not fearful of nuclear radiation (cnn.com)
- Q&A: Health effects of radiation exposure – BBC News (news.google.com)