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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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Radiation Exposure and Japan


Nuclear Power Plant in Cattemom, France
Nuclear Power Plant in Cattemom, France, photo by Stefan Kuhn
Although the casualties from the massive earthquake and tsunami of last week are all from the injuries related to the onrush of water, collapse of structures and other related events, there is tremendous concern from the possible effects of radiation emission from the damaged nuclear power plants. The most informed experts in the world are assisting the Japanese government in assessing the risk and determining the best courses of actions to prevent escape of harmful radiation, and for moving people out of harm’s way.

There are many questions about the likelihood of what might happen should a “meltdown” or other nuclear energy catastrophe occur with the reactors. I will appropriately leave the engineering predictions to the experts and limit my comments to the potential health effects due to exposure to harmful radiation. Hopefully, this will all be cautionary information, and no one will suffer temporary or permanent harmful effects from what is happening in Japan.

Dangerous Radioactive Gases & Particles

Multiple radioactive gases could possibly be emitted in a situation where uranium attains a “meltdown” state, which is defined as severe overheating of the core of a nuclear reactor (as a result of a chain reaction that has not been controlled), in which the core melts and radiation and heat are caused to escape. This would occur if the containment system (which shields the environment from the radiation) fails partially or totally. The gases that could be released include gm, tritium, and krypton. None of these is of major concern at this particular moment. More concerning would be the spewed particles of iodine-131, strontium-90 and cesium-137. These might enter into a human by being swallowed, absorbed through the skin, or inhaled. Depending on the chemical characteristics of each of these and their predilection for certain body tissues, they could cause cancers of such organs as bones, soft tissues near bones, thyroid gland, and the bone marrow (i.e., leukemia).

How Radiation Can Harm Your Body

People can be exposed to normal background radiation from many sources, either natural or man-made, without much concern. However, acute very high level radiation exposure can cause a person to become very ill or to die quickly. Ionizing radiation, which is defined as high-energy particles or electromagnetic waves that can break chemical bonds (and produce an ion pair; hence the term “ionizing”), damage humans by interrupting cellular function, particularly in tissues with rapid growth and turnover of cells. Alpha particles (particles made up of two protons plus two neutrons with no electrons) are a problem when they are swallowed or inhaled. Beta particles (high-energy electrons) are released by decaying radioactive materials such as strontium-90. These can do damage by being swallowed, inhaled, or causing skin burns. Neutrons produced in a nuclear reactor may also injure humans.

The cellular damage is attributed to injury to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which is essential for cell division. Simply put, cells exposed to excessive radiation are transformed and may die. If the dose is sudden and massive, then rapidly dividing cells are affected first. These include those of the skin (burns), gastrointestinal tract (bleeding, vomiting), and bone marrow (bleeding and severe anemia). If the exposure is less intense and/or more prolonged at a lower level, then the central nervous system, kidneys, thyroid gland, and liver may be affected. Cancer is the most well known effect, and may affect virtually any significantly exposed tissue.

Decontamination to Prevent Radiation-Related Effects

While a massive radiation exposure might occur in association with a nuclear reactor meltdown and free release of a sufficient quantity of radiation to cause an acute radiation syndrome, the current situation suggests a possible lesser level of exposure, in which the concern would be more of the long-term effects. Decontamination would certainly be of value, and consists mainly of removing clothing and washing thoroughly with soap and water, with the discards considered to be biohazards and therefore properly collected for disposal. Potassium iodide, which is a salt, is sometimes administered to persons potentially exposed to ionizing radiation because it blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland and might decrease the risk for thyroid cancer and other thyroid problems, such as hypoactive thyroid, inflammation of the thyroid, and thyroid nodule formation. It is most effective if ingested within a few hours of the exposure.

Learn more about what to do after a nuclear radiation emergency.

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Tags: General Interest , Staying Safe

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About the Author

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