- After the burial of the Japanese earthquake victims,
another health challenge is brewing. While measures to control damage at
the Fukushima nuclear facility continue, radiation has spread. So far,
low levels of radioactivity have been detected in various locations in
flowers, vegetables, milk, tap water and at sea. And that's likely just
- Despite the Japanese government's shifting assurances
of safety, international agencies are concerned about human health over
the long term.
- "Repeated consumption of certain products is going
to intensify risks, as opposed to radiation in the air that happens once,"
says Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. In a
country that suffered the aftermath of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, this is particularly poignant.
- China, the United States, Canada and other countries
have already begun screening Japanese food exports for radiation. Japan
itself has voluntarily stopped exports of raw milk and various vegetables
from the Daiichi district, where the Fukushima nuclear facility is
- But it is the Japanese people themselves who may suffer
the long-term health risks. Pregnant women and their fetuses, young children
and people with strong family histories of certain cancers are at heightened
risk. The Canadian Pediatric Society notes that the unborn fetus,
particularly during the first three months of pregnancy, is more susceptible
to harmful influences such as street drugs, excess alcohol, maternal illness
- In 1991, I discovered this for myself. A Ukrainian patient
who had lived in Pripyat, a city near the Chernobyl nuclear plant, came
to my clinic. She had been pregnant with twins in 1986, the time of the
Chernobyl meltdown. Her children, a boy and a girl, were born two months
prematurely. They had always been somewhat weak and pale, but their health
deteriorated after they arrived in Canada five years later.
- The children had been losing weight, were always fatigued
and would bruise and swell easily. After performing blood tests on them,
I had the terrible duty to inform the mother of the diagnosis. Both of
them had blood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
- I remember being shocked and asking her, "How is
this possible? One child might have leukemia, but two at the same time?"
It was only then that I understood the impact of being from a radioactive
hot zone such as Chernobyl.
- Of course, the radiation exposure from the Chernobyl
disaster was vastly higher than the radiation leaks in Japan so far.
But there is a twist to the potential long-term radiation exposure that
should be considered. Even though the radiation intensity is very low,
the fission product particles that have leaked into the Japanese landscape
might hang around for days, years, centuries or even eons.
- Consider these fission product half-lives, the time it
takes for 50 per cent of the substance to dissipate: for iodine-131, eight
days; cesium-137, 30 years; molybdenum-99, 200,000 years; zirconium-93,
1.5 million years; palladium-107, seven million years.
- To gauge the effect of medications on human health, doctors
consider two key elements dosage and duration. If a doctor prescribes
an antibiotic, say a tablet of 500 milligrams once a day for a week, a
patient may experience side effects. But we know that the medication will
be completely washed out of his system in a matter of days.
- Now consider the time frame of radioactive particles.
What happens if a doctor prescribes another pill, say a low dose of only
one milligram a day, but this time for 30 years, or perhaps seven million
years? It is this potential for low but super-long exposure that is worrying.
- There are hundreds of manufacturing cycles in the human
body that can be affected by chronic low radiation exposure. For example,
it takes just the right biological steps over 75 days to make sperm, one
month to make new skin, nine months for a baby and one year to renovate
10 per cent of your bone mass. Such processes can be derailed or deranged
by ever-present radiation.
- In fact, it is such high-throughput manufacturing that
is particularly susceptible to radiation. The body releases 100 billion
new red blood cells into the bloodstream daily. With an assembly line that
productive, slight errors can accumulate rapidly, which is one of the reasons
blood cancers develop.
- Another frustration for medical authorities is that our
standard hygiene advice for avoiding infections does not apply to radiation.
No amount of hand washing, coughing into your sleeve, antiseptic gels or
cloth isolation gowns will help. For the most part, you can't hide from
radiation released into the environment especially if you're bathing
in radioactive water.
- And what happens when authorities discover radiation
in ocean fish that have been bathed by a cloud of radioactive particles?
For a society that eats raw fish and gave the world sushi, this will be
a food resource challenge.
- Perhaps eventually there will be a new level of product
warning, first in Japan and then elsewhere. Instead of the usual labels
such as "no sugar added" or "caffeine-free," food chains
may have to add "radiation-free" or "no fission products
- In any case, there is a slow-release international health
challenge on the horizon. Ten years will need to pass before we can gauge
its full extent.
- Dr. Shafiq Qaadri is a Toronto family physician.