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Radiation and Health: The Japanese Nuclear Crisis and Health Impacts

March 17, 2011
Dr. Jeff Patterson at a Hill briefing on the Japan nuclear crisis, March 18, 2011.

The ongoing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant seriously threatens human health and will continue to pose a threat for an indeterminate period.  That’s the message that PSR spokespeople have been carrying to the public through the mass media over the past week.

Radiation emissions from the crippled Daiichi reactors have fluctuated significantly.  Too often in recent days, the Japanese government has downplayed the threat, indicating that they do not pose an immediate danger to health, other than for the Japanese workers trying to secure the plant. 

That characterization does not capture the true danger, according to Ira Helfand, MD, past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and a nuclear expert who has dedicated his life to educating the public and the medical establishment about the threats to human health and survival posed by nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. 

For one thing, spikes in radiation have at times released enormous doses, “high enough to risk radiation sickness," Helfand recently told the press.

Radiation sickness, also called radiation poisoning, can cause death. Symptoms include nausea, weakness, hair loss, skin burns, and diminished organ function.  If the dose is fatal, death can occur within two months.

But besides the acute damage from radiation energy, there’s a separate threat to health:  ingesting or inhaling radioactive particles.

Radioactive particles are carcinogenic and long-lasting.  They tend to lodge in specific organs or parts of the body, thus concentrating their carcinogenic effects. 

And no threshold exists for a “safe” level of exposure to radioactive particles, according to the National Academies of Science BIER VII report.   

Thus, the “repeated assurances that these emissions are too low to affect health, don’t square with what we know,” stated Helfand.  “Any exposure … increases risk of cancer.”  

Strontium-90 is one of those radioactive particles.  Because it has chemical properties similar to calcium, strontium in the body tends to collect in the bones and teeth.  With a half-life of 29 years, strontium-90 stays in the bones essentially for life, creating a high risk of leukemia and bone cancer. 

Other carcinogenic radioactive particles include iodine-131, which collects in the thyroid, where it can cause thyroid cancer; cesium-137, which disperses widely through all body tissues; and plutonium-239, which can cause lung cancer.

Plutonium can also contaminate land, as well as food and water.  Helfand notes that, 25 years after the nuclear catastrophe at the Russian nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, the land is still not safe to use.  If a large release of nuclear material were to take place in Japan, Helfand observed, “it is conceivable that parts of the metropolitan Tokyo area could be contaminated in this way.”

Helfand assessed the likelihood of health effects from the affecting Tokyo as “presumably quite low, although not zero.  The problem,” he concluded, “is that the situation is not under control. We can’t predict what will happen.  This may go on for months.”

These recent tragic and still unfolding nuclear reactor accidents in Japan remind us that this level of risk is unacceptable, especially when safer, renewable options are available.  To protect Americans’ health, we ought to immediately suspend operation of reactors in the US with the same design as the Japanese reactors while a safety review is conducted, place a moratorium on new reactor licensing and construction, stop the risky extensions of licenses of existing facilities and eliminate nuclear subsidies, especially loan guarantees.

Read more about PSR's response to the crisis.

Resources:

Basics of Radiation

PSR Radiation and Public Health Fact Sheet

Radiation Limits

The BEIR VII Study (National Academies of Science)

Science for the Vulnerable: Setting Radiation and Multiple Exposure Environmental Health Standards to Protect Those Most at Risk (Institute for Energy and Environmental Research)

Nuclear Accidents and Radiation


If the Unlikely Becomes Likely: Medical Response to Nuclear Accidents (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

In this nuclear world, what is the meaning of 'safe'? (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

CDC Potassium Iodide fact sheet

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