Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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The Japan Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Reactor Complication

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Ofunato, Japan After the Earthquake and Tsunami
Ofunato, Japan After the Earthquake and Tsunami
I have just received word that my good friend N. Stuart Harris, MD, who is Chief of the Division of Wilderness Medicine in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, is in Japan assisting with the recovery efforts. Dr. Harris has just given an interview on National Public Radio regarding the situation. It can be found at the link http://www.wbur.org/2011/03/17/mgh-doc 

He offers a number of relevant observations, not the least of which is that practicing in a natural disaster setting is indeed wilderness medicine—that is, having to make do with limited resources in an austere setting. We wish him and every other person involved in the rescue effort good luck, safety and great success. Having been in the response to the Haiti earthquake, I know that just a pat on the back goes a long way in these types of circumstances. From what I have heard about the amazing attitudes, camaraderie, and resilience of the Japanese people, they are setting a very high standard for how a nation can respond to a devastating event.

As would be expected, the situations in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami and with the continuing efforts to completely control the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor revolve around a number of concerns: First, there is the aftermath of the tsunami, which has caused the survivors, many of them elders, to be displaced from destroyed homes and communities. Combined with the evacuations related to the risk of radiation exposure from the nuclear reactor, this means that a number approaching 500,000 individuals are without homes, and require shelter, food, water, medical attention and psychological support. Second, there is the effect of cold weather, which makes the logistics of the situation more complicated. If the weather turns for the worse, so might the overall sheltering situation. Third, there is the continuing saga of the reactor, which poses a short-term risk of radiation exposure and a long-term risk of permanent displacement of the population within an unsafe radius of its fallout. This is compounded by the general economic catastrophe of diminished energy and possibly contaminated crops and livestock, which will impact not only the ability to sustain the local population, but the income and future of Japan’s exports.

Current reports indicate that progress is being made at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor with regard to cooling, but the official status is still deemed to be at a “level 5 to 7” by the government of Japan. There is a cold weather front approaching the area and due to be present in the March 23 to 26 timeframe, with minimal temperatures at the sub-freezing level. In terms of the spread of radioactive particles, there has been detection of higher levels than acceptable (by regulations) in certain milk and produce samples from the prefectures of Fukushima, Ibaraki, and Chiba. The Japanese government has actions in place to limit the consumption, distribution, and sale of any affected food products. As a precautionary measure, the government is asking people to avoid contact with rainwater, and has reccomended washing with clean water should an exposure occur. Samples of drinking water from the Fukushima district have indicated contamination that is above their defined safety levels. This is an evolving situation that will require close monitoring on all fronts.

Assuming that there is no further environmental catastrophe to worsen the situation, from this point forward we hope for as many tales of miraculous prolonged survival as possible. These will be about people who were trapped, but not mortally wounded. Beyond that, it will be a situation of continuous assessment and strategic distribution of human and other resources, to support the hundreds of thousands of persons who have been displaced, and the millions of people who are in a situation of deprivation.  With the remarkable efforts of Japan and international responders, the situation at the reactor will be resolved.

For health care providers who read this post, here is a link to an excellent Emergency Radiation Medicine Response Pocket Guide: http://www.afrri.usuhs.mil/outreach/pdf/AFRRI-Pocket-Guide.pdf

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Tags: On the Road , Staying Safe

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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