FAQ: Health Effects of Radiation Exposure

Even after cleaning the debris from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, there may be long lasting consequences from the natural disasters. Workers have been risking their lives trying to contain the damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant. However, the Japanese people and other global citizens are concerned about health effects of the radiation leaks.
Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant

What are the immediate effects of radiation exposure?

Exposure to high levels of radiation above one gray can result in radiation sickness. Within hours of exposure the symptoms of nausea and vomiting occur, following diarrhea, headaches, and fever. Soon after, however, there is a possibility to not have any physical signs of an illness for weeks. Unfortunately after that period has passed, the illness will reoccur, and is even more life-threatening. It can result in widespread, and potentially fatal damage of internal organs.

What are the long-term effects of radiation exposure?

The damage that is caused by the radiation exposure will vary by how long one has been exposured to the radiation and at what level. The decaying of radioactive material produces ionizing radiation, which is capable of breaking the chemical bonds between the atoms and molecules that make up one's bodily tissue. The body does try to repair the damage tissue, but if one was exposured at a high level of radiation then the body fails at its attempt to repair the damage and actually causes the person to have acute health effects in the instestine, stomach, and blood-producing cells in bone marrow. It can also cause mistakes in the DNA's attempt to repair the damage, which may eventually lead to cancer. In addition, genetic material that has been damaged by radiation exposure may be passed down to one's offspring, causing genetic deformities. These include smaller brain and head size, poorly formed body parts, stunt growth, and learning disabilities.

What threat does Fukushima pose?

It has been reported that the nuclear plant has had a radiation level of 400 millisieverts per hour. That is equivalent to the dose of 20-100 CT scans. It has been stressed, though, that the radiation level would not cause radiation sickness, and only workers at the plant were at risk to such a dose for a limited time. However, even a dose of 100 millisieverts over a year is enough to raise the risk of cancer. Levels of 25 millisieverts have been recorded in the village of Iitate, to the northwest of the plant. It is believed that this level could only increase the chance of cancer by a small amount. The pattern of contamination on the surrounding areas of the plant depend on the direction of the wind and rainfall.

There is concern over two types of radioactive material that are by-products of the nuclear fission process which can contaminate the soil, and get into the foodchain. The first radioactive material is iodine. The radioactive form of iodine - iodine-131 - is easily absorbed by the thyroid, the gland which regulates growth and cell production. This would increase one's chance of thyroid cancer if he were exposed as a child. People, children in particular, are able to prevent their bodies from absorbing the radioactive material by taking tablets containing a stable form of iodine. Another potential source of contamination is the radioactive form of the metal caesium (caesium-134 and caesium-137), which once released, continues to pose a potential risk for many years. It can get into a human's soft tissue and cause cancer.

Japan's Radiation Levels

Tips for the Japanese People:

  • People near the plant should stay indoors
  • Be sure to be checked with a radiation detector to see your radiation level
  • Stay away from contaminated individuals because particles can be shared among individuals
  • If exposed to external particles of radioactive material, remove contaminated clothing carefully, clean oneself, and be careful not to spread any of the material onto the skin
  • If one's thyroid is contaminated, take a potassium iodine pill
  • If one knows he has been exposured to radiation for an extended period, seek medical help immediately

Further Reading/Viewing

The Health Effects Of Radiation Exposure
Japan Earthquake: Radiation Effects On Body
Impact of Radiation from Japan


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