Intense exposure to radioactive particles can be deadly | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 16.03.2011
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Intense exposure to radioactive particles can be deadly

Japanese public health officials are worried about the potential for mass radiation poisoning. Given a prolonged exposure to radioactive particles from the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, many people could become very ill.

Koriyama City residents are being tested for radiation

Koriyama City residents are being tested for radiation

On Wednesday, the chaos and confusion surrounding the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant has only gotten worse, with the announcement that a second reactor unit may have ruptured and appears now to be spewing radioactive steam.

Radioactive particles, can be absorbed through inhalation and the skin, and depending on the length and intensity of exposure, can be deadly.

Given a high-enough level of radiation exposure, it is possible to develop serious medical conditions ranging from thyroid cancer, tumors, acute leukemia to eye diseases, mental disorders and even genome lesions.

Potassium iodide being measured by a pharmacist

Potassium iodide can counter the effects of iodine-131 and iodine-133

If the body sustains a massive dose of radiation within a very short time, then the results can be deadly within hours or days.

Exposure to iodine

The Japanese government has been distributing potassium iodide pills to citizens in the affected areas immediately surrounding the nuclear power station, which, if taken prior to radiation exposure, can prevent thyroid cancer.

This disease can be induced after being exposed to iodine-131 and iodine-133, both radioactive isotopes of the element. The iodine in the pills binds to the isotopes, which can then be excreted from the body.

However this protective treatment only can last a few days, and only works prior to exposure, and not after.

Cesium and strontium

Other people who live near the Fukushima Daiichi plant may also be at risk of exposure to strontium-90 and cesium-137, two additional radioactive elements that once accumulated in the bone tissue can also lead to an increased risk of cancer.

Women with wearing face masks

Many Japanese people in the affected areas have started wearing face masks

The body cannot distinguish these substances from regular calcium, and so these atoms can be combined into dangerous substances that are used in physiological processes in muscle and bone tissue. Prolonged or intense exposure to strontium-90 can lead to leukemia.

Intense exposure to radioactive particles can also cause significant genetic damage, as was the case in many victims after the atomic bombing at the end of World War II on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

In the years after the bombings, many children with horrible birth defects were born.

Similarly, after the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986, 20 years after the accident, the cancer rate in the most affected regions has risen by 40 percent. In addition, an estimated 25,000 people died in Russia alone who worked on the clean-up reactor.

No treatment options

Radioactive particles can exist on clothing, but can be washed off with soap and water. However once ingested into the body, it is almost impossible to fully remove them.

A reading of 2.9 mSv

Radiation levels at the Fukushima Daiichi plant spiked at 400 mSv on Monday

Scientists and public health officials measure radioactive exposure in millisieverts (mSv), and caution that radiation sickness can occur above 250 mSv, and certain death if untreated above several thousand mSv.

On Monday, following an explosion and fire at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors No. 3 and No. 4, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported readings that spiked at 400 mSv per hour, but fell as they dissipated into the air. Six hours later, the same area showed a measurement of only 0.6 mSv.

According to the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection, the average exposure from the environment within Germany is currently about 2.1 mSv over the course of a year.

Author: Gudrun Heise / cjf
Editor: Andrew Bowen

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