Despite an embattled government’s assurances that the amount of radiation released from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Unit 1 reactor “appeared to be relatively low,” more than 180,000 people were evacuated from a 12-mile radius around the nuclear power plant located roughly 170 miles from Tokyo.
Officials are scrambling to screen evacuees for exposure and decontaminate those in need. The government is planning widespread distribution of medication to “protect against thyroid cancer,” according to a report from the Washington Post.
The number of people potentially exposed to the radiation leaking from the earthquake-damaged Diiachi plant quickly climbed into the dozens and is now approaching 200. Sadly, that number is likely to increase dramatically in the coming days – though officials were quick to say that none of those testing positive is yet showing “physical symptoms of radiation exposure.”
According to the Washington Post report, the true extent of the radiation leak and its potential impact on human health will be determined by a series of factors, including “how much and what kind of radioactive material is released, where it travels and how many people are exposed for how long…”
The Post quotes John Boice Jr., the scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute in Rockville, Maryland, as saying: “Anything having to do with health effects has to do with the amount of exposure the population receives, and that’s just an unknown. That’s determined by many factors, including which way the wind is blowing.”
We are comforted by the fact that government officials in Japan seem to be taking urgent steps to protect their citizens. Although they initially tried to downplay the disaster – telling people to stay indoors and cover their mouths – officials now appear to be taking the right course of action to control the potential for widespread exposure.
History gives us glimpses into the nightmare of radiation-based disasters and how devastating the health impacts can be. According to the Post report, exposure can cause a “variety of cancers, including leukemia and cancer of the breast, lung and colon.” And since the half-life is decades-long for a number of the contaminants – like radioactive cesium – associated with nuclear plant releases and leaks, the risks can persist for a generation and radiation can enter the food chain over time.
Japan’s disaster demands an international effort to protect people from exposure, to treat those who have been exposed (a tall order in a country that has been ravaged by a devastating earthquake) and to carefully study the health impacts. It’s going to be a long haul, as reported by the Washington Post: “Excess cases of leukemia begin to show up within two years of exposure and peak within five to 10 years; other cancers do not start to appear in excess for at least a decade, and their risk can remain elevated for decades.”
We’ll be keeping a close eye on the situation as it unfolds, and we’ll continue to bring you the latest commentary on what we consider the most important piece of this story: The potential health impacts on the people in Japan, and beyond.
Here’s a the Washington Post story: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/12/AR2011031203446.html?hpid=topnews
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