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The earthquake in Japan: a health news roundup

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Over a week after the magnitude 9 earthquake and the massive tsunamis it triggered, information continues to coalesce on the health risks from the crisis.

Corrected on 21 March to reflect updated alert level.

Over a week after the magnitude 9 earthquake and the massive tsunamis it triggered, information continues to coalesce on the health risks from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station explosion. Here’s a roundup of what various people are saying about radiation and other threats.

First, here is the latest info from the Japanese government on radioactivity measurements. And here’s today’s update on the location of the radiation plumes.

1. On millisieverts and cancer

Radiation fears may be greatly exaggerated. Everyone is exposed to small amounts of radiation every day just from living on earth or flying in an airplane.

That all adds up to about 2.4 units, known as millisieverts (mSv), a year – though it varies from 1 to 10 mSv depending on where you live. The average American absorbs 6.2 mSv a year. US guidelines recommend evacuation with 10 to 50 mSv.

In Tokyo, 150 miles from the nuclear plant, readings rose about 10 times above the norm. That’s 0.809 microsieverts (not milli) per hour – or about 10 times less than a chest X-ray.

A Japanese broadcast reported 0.17 mSv per hour 30 km northwest of the reactor. There're also reports of 0.012 mSv/hr in Fukushima City, 60 km away from the plant.

In terms of long term health effects, it's generally acceptable to make a worst-case estimate by multiplying the dose by hours in the day and days in the year. That’s roughly 1,500 mSv/yr around 30 km away and 100 mSv/yr in Fukushima City. An exposure rate of 100 mSv/yr is considered the threshold at which cancer rates begin to increase, and 1,500 mSv/yr is certainly dangerous.

To be lethal, the blast of radiation would have to top 5,000 mSv delivered within minutes. Measurements at the damaged plants are at 400 mSv. Unprotected workers may have been exposed to about 4 times the level for elevated cancer risk (or 20 times the annual exposure for uranium miners).

Fukushima was rated a 4 on a scale of nuclear incidents, but that level has been raised to a 5. Three Mile Island rated a 5 and had no impact on cancer incidence in the region. Chernobyl was a 7, and people exposed to radioactive fallout showed higher rates of thyroid cancer because the gland sequesters radioactive iodine.

2. And iodine

Potassium iodide, which there are ample supplies of, prevents radiation poisoning of the thyroid gland. The drug blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine by filling the gland with a safer form of iodine.

But potassium iodide can interfere with the body's normal production of thyroid hormone, leading to hypothyroidism, or can provoke an already diseased thyroid gland to make too much of the hormone.

3. Shower off the plume

Outside the immediate vicinity of the nuclear site, the primary danger is airborne radioactive material released into an atmospheric plume. That material can pose additional hazards if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin to emit radiation from inside the body.

"If there's a plume that passes overhead and some of the material precipitates down, you may be externally contaminated, but it's nothing that a change of clothes and a shower can't take care of," according to a medical physicist from the University of California, Davis.

Finally, the World Health Organization says that the public health risk from the radiation leak appears to be quite low.

4. Food contamination?

Many countries have started to test food imported from Japan for radiation. But radiation experts say there was virtually no chance of major contamination of industrial products, even if the leakage were to worsen. Particles like the ones containing escaped radioactive iodine or cesium can be deposited on products, but given the nature of the manufacturing industries in Japan, there is little danger of contamination reaching harmful levels.

5. Other (ignored) health threats

Radiation fears divert attention from other (and worse) health threats. These include disrupted supplies of safe drinking water and the disposal of sewage to prevent outbreaks of diseases like typhoid and cholera.

Image of the ocean floor by Japan from NOAA

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure