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Crisis in Japan: Examining the effects of radiation

By Gabby Katz

Section: Arts

March 18, 2011

Considering the nuclear concerns that have resulted from the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I thought it would be important to evaluate all the news and data out right now and try to estimate the magnitude of this disaster in comparison to previous radioactive scares. At the very least, I hope to bring awareness to the health risks of radioactive exposure currently being faced by the people of the Fukushima area and Japan.

First, I just wanted to say that I, along with the greater part of the Brandeis community, have Japan in my thoughts and prayers right now as I wish everyone finds themselves safe.

To start off, what exactly led to all of this talk of radioactive exposure? According to National Public Radio, the emergency cooling systems at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant failed because the electricity in the plant was knocked out by the large earthquake and tsunami. If the plant overheats, there’s a risk that the nuclear fuel rods may melt; this is problematic because they could potentially melt through their containment vessel, leak out, and spread a hazardous plume and contamination. Though the release of some radioactive gases has already occurred, there has been only a partial core meltdown of the rods and not a complete escape of radioactive materials into the environment.

Historically, news outlets like MSN and FOX News believe the present situation lies somewhere between the incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in terms of damages and long-lasting health effects that may occur. According to NPR, Chernobyl had at least 5 percent of its radioactive reactor core released into the atmosphere, which led to a total of 30 radiation-related deaths within a few weeks of the incident and left thousands at risk of cancer. Three Mile Island was a partial core meltdown due to a stuck-open relief valve; although no correlation between negative health effects and the incident were confirmed, some studies have suggested that it led to an increase in cancer, particularly of the thyroid, and immense stress for the people who lived in the area.

Since Fukushima has had multiple partial core meltdowns in units 1 and 3, a hydrogen explosion in unit 2 and a fire in unit 4, it has released more gas than Three Mile Island but has not quite experienced a complete containment malfunction like Chernobyl. Thus, as of now, many are assuming the health risks lie between these past two incidents.

According to the CDC, radiation has a few types of effects, including Acute Radiation Syndrome (ARS), Prenatal Radiation Exposure (PRE) and Cutaneous Radiation Injury (CRI).

ARS occurs following a high dose of radiation which has penetrated the entire body in a short period. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, skin damage and diarrhea; these can start within a few minutes or days of the exposure. Depending on the strength of the radiation exposure, symptoms can be as severe as seizures, coma, destruction of bone marrow, internal bleeding and death. PRE’s effects depend on the gestational age of the baby, but it can lead to stunted growth, deformities, abnormal brain function or cancer later in the baby’s life. CRI is an injury to the skin and tissues which results from a large external exposure to radiation and can be categorized into stages and grades that range in effects from erythema to injury of blood vessels, lympostasis, vasculitis and even skin cancer. The treatment for all three of these radiation exposure complications follow similar regiments.

Initially, localized injuries are treated based on their symptoms. The treatment then follows a stage-by-stage basis. Antihistamines, steroids, anti-inflammatory medicines and creams are used for the prodromal stage, and anti-inflammatory medications and sedatives are continued through the latent stage. At the manifestation stage, antibiotics are added to the regiment to reduce bacterial, fungal and viral infections. Treatment of late effects include pain management, treatments for fibrosis and necrosis as well as potential reconstructive surgery. Other treatments include therapy for psychological stress and preventative measures for the increased risk of skin cancer.

So far, the amount of radiation emitted is predicted to be too low to produce any of these syndromes or effects. If the amount released into the environment increases, it’s crucial to take preventative measures, which include staying in your house, sealing any vents during the plume and having food with a long shelf life. Being informed and prepared is crucial to keeping calm and collected during an emergency. Again, we wish the people of Japan the best of luck and hope they don’t have to worry about any of these effects. We can all help by making donations to the Red Cross and others relief organizations.

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