Rethinking Healthcare

The health woes go beyond radiation effects

The health woes go beyond radiation effects

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A year after the Fukushima earthquake, public health experts agree that radiation fears were overblown. Heart disease, depression, and being severed from standard medical care might be worse.

Days and weeks after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdowns, public concern hung on the threat of radiation almost more than it did than on the tsunami and earthquake themselves, which had killed more than 15,850 people and displaced at least 340,000 more.

A year later, public health experts agree that the radiation fears were overblown – heart disease and depression are likely to claim more lives.

Scientific American’s Katherine Harmon reports.

In retrospect, the power plant's malfunction was relatively well contained.

  • The reactor shut down, as designed, at the time of the earthquake. The release was slow and limited to a few radioactive materials, including iodine 131, which has a half-life of just 8 days and therefore does not lead to long-term contamination.
  • As for other isotopes, such as cesium 134 (3-year half-life) and cesium 137, (30 years), levels can be easily detected and dangerous areas kept clear.
  • And the Japanese government, although criticized immediately after the accident for providing spotty information, actually gave relatively good instructions to local residents.
  • The exposure cutoff for the evacuated areas is an estimated 20 millisieverts per year: that’s more radiation than the typical US resident is exposed to in an average year, but not that much more. A 20-millisievert-per-year exposure might increase the odds of getting cancer by a few thousandths of a percent.
  • The early cleanup workers faced a higher dose, with the risk of acute radiation sickness, resulting in nausea, low blood cell counts and neurological issues. So far, no one has been reported to have suffered this illness from the event.

Even if the accident hasn’t proved as dangerous as it was originally feared to be, other risks may be worse than commonly appreciated.

  • With many plants still closed, electricity rationing is a major issue still. For those who are just on the edge of health, less heating, air-conditioning, lighting and even reduced mass transit, can be enough to push some of them into illness or even death.
  • Many survivors are left disconnected from their standard medical care. This has severed residents from simple health support, such as heart medication and physicians familiar with their medical histories. And while temporary visiting health workers were helpful, they couldn’t replace the long-time doctors that patients had relied on prior to the disaster.
  • People who lost their homes, villages and family members, and even just those who survived the quake, will likely continue to face mental health challenges and the physical ailments that come with stress, such as heart disease.

As in previous disasters, however, new services have developed to meet new needs: awareness of the mental health burden has lead to a spontaneous outpouring of help from around the country.

[From Scientific American]

Image by jetalone via Flickr

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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