Radiation health risks in Japan

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: As we've just heard in Mary Kay Magistad's report, there's grave concern in Japan and beyond about the nuclear crisis and the possible health risks, but there's wide disagreement on the actual level of risk beyond the 12 mile evacuation zone. Laurie Garrett is Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. She says that past experiences with nuclear tests and accidents offer some evidence by which to judge the risks from the crisis in Japan.

Laurie Garrett: We're not in the dark as we were in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. And you heard people predicting that millions of people around the world would get cancer. And in fact, most of the elevation in cancer was very much confined to the people that were living very close to the Chernobyl reactor in the immediate parts of southwestern Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. And the vast majority of the cases were thyroid cancer involving people who were children at the time of the exposure. We've learned from that that if you take potassium iodide pills when you are near a disaster of this kind, the potassium iodide will protect the thyroid gland against radioactivity.

Mullins: So, in terms of the actual risk you say that we have much more experience with this now than we did 25 years ago with Chernobyl. What do we know then about the Japanese plant?

Garrett: Well, it's unrealistic to think that at a time when they're scrambling to contain the problem that they would be able to provide the world community with detailed breakdowns on exactly what kinds of radioactive isotopes have been released, in what quantities, and emitting what sorts of radiation; all of which you need to know in order to compute with any accuracy relative risks to people who may be down wind. So, at this time we don't have the necessary data to tell if anything with precision. What we can certainly say is that for the workers who are inside the plant and are directly exposed to threat, there is very real sacrifice being made by those workers, and they will, some of them, suffer certainly radiation sickness and perhaps other untoward results including cancer down the road. But for the general population of the region, evacuation was fairly swift. Distribution of potassium iodide was fairly swift, and it does not appear there are very many people left in the dangerous zone at this time.

Mullins: But the thing is we don't really know whether the danger zone will change depending on literally which way the wind is blowing, and as you say, the different types of radiation that are involved, the duration of exposure, whether or not somebody has direct contact. And if we don't know, then what is the case against running for the hills?

Garrett: Well, I can think of a lot of reasons not to run for the hills. Let's start right here inside the United States. All you people that have gone out and bought potassium iodide pills, which are now completely sold out nationwide, all of you are nuts to start taking those pills. I don't know what possible basis you have for believing that dangerous levels of radiation are gonna come all the way from Japan to Kansas. And because Americans have bought up every single pill there are no supplies available to supplement what is already on the market in Japan to help people who may be legitimately exposed. So that's ridiculous run for the hills response number one. What about inside Japan and this dispute between the United States government and the Japanese government over the appropriate extent of the evacuation zone -- 12 miles versus 50 miles. The United States government has the luxury if you will of basically addressing a fairly small number of American citizens, and why not err on the side of highest possible safety on behalf of your citizens. Japan does not have that luxury. They have about a million homeless people right now displaced by the tsunami and by the earthquake. They have tens of thousands of people trying to move from one part of the country to another to what they consider relative safety. The panic produced by an inappropriate response to the threat of the radiation risk from Fukushima can have life threatening impacts. It is absolutely essential to keep in mind that Japan is dealing with an incident, this nuclear incident, that is secondary to a far more devastating, catastrophic set of incidents that occurred on Friday, March 11, with the tsunami and the earthquake.

Mullins: Thank you, Laurie Garrett, of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, talking about the human health risks posed by the nuclear crisis in Japan. Laurie, thank you.

Garrett: You bet.