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Nuclear Fallout-Related Health Fears Rise In Japan

Concerns regarding health risks “rose dramatically in Japan Tuesday” after officials said more radiation was released at a nuclear power plant that was damaged in the tsunami, the Associated Press reports. In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said radiation had been emitted from four reactors. “The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out,” he said.

The most immediate risk from high levels of radiation exposure is thyroid cancer, and the Japanese government is planning to distribute potassium iodide pills to help lessen the risk. In worst-case scenarios in which nearby residents are exposed to very high levels of radioactive fallout, they can develop other cancers years later. However, a complete meltdown of the reactors “would not necessarily mean medical doom, experts said. It depends on the amount and type of radioactive materials,” according to the article, which compares the current situation to previous nuclear reactor disasters at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine and the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania (3/15). According to CNN, two U.S.-based companies have received hundreds of orders for potassium iodide since the earthquake (Smith, 3/15).

“The explosions could expose the population to longer-term radiation, which can raise the risk of cancer. These are thyroid cancer, bone cancer and leukemia. Children and fetuses are especially vulnerable,” said Lam Ching-wan, a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong, said, according to Reuters. “For some individuals even a small amount of radiation can raise the risk of cancer. The higher the radiation, the higher the risk of cancer,” said Lam, who is also a member on the American Board of Toxicologists.

Radioactive material can “be directly inhaled into the lungs, get washed down by rain into the sea and onto soil, and eventually contaminate crops, marine life and drinking water. Cow milk was also especially vulnerable, experts said, if cows graze on grass exposed to radiation,” Reuters reports (Lyn, 3/15).

“Japan has confirmed 22 people have suffered radiation poisoning, and almost a thousand people have been evacuated to prevent exposure. Eleven workers at the Fukushima plant have been injured,” Inter Press Service reports (Kakuchi, 3/15).

Humanitarian Situation Develops While World Offers Assistance 

On the ground, the humanitarian situation has been “unfolding on multiple fronts – from a sudden rise in newly orphaned children to shortages of water, food, fuel and electricity to overflowing toilets in overwhelmed shelters and erratic care of traumatized survivors,” Reuters reports.

For a fourth night, millions of people in the country’s northeast region went without “water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures, as tens of thousands of rescue workers struggled to reach them. … By Monday, 550,000 people had been evacuated after the earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 10,000,” according to the news service.

“Hundreds of foreign rescue workers are assisting quake and tsunami victims but the United Nations does not plan to mount a bigger relief operation unless requested, U.N. aid officials said on Monday” (Kubota, 3/14). The Japanese government on Monday confirmed that 91 countries and nine international organization had offered to aid with relief efforts, the Guardian reports (Ford/Provost, 3/14).

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.