Due to the nuclear power plant meltdown that Japan is currently experiencing, the world is now awash with fear with regards to radiation. There are many nuclear reactors around the world, and many fear that if a similar natural disaster hit the places where these reactors are located, a similar catastrophe as the one that Japan has just experienced will be repeated. First there was Three Mile Island then there was Chernobyl and now there’s Fukushima. What exactly are the facts behind radiation? How does it affect human health?
First of all, what is radiation? Radiation is basically present all around us, this is energy that comes from a source and travels through space and even through matter. The ultraviolet rays from the sun is an example of radiation, but there are some higher, more intense kinds of radiation that we get in low doses from all over us. These are called ionizing radiation and this can cause significant damage to living tissue if left exposed with high levels. But these kinds of radiation are also used to save lives, such as those used in the medical field—like x-rays and chemotherapy.
In a nuclear reactor the radiation at work are neutrons which come from the splitting of atoms in the nuclear reactor. In a nuclear reactor meltdown, high levels of ionizing radiation is spread around the affected area. This can have serious health effects like the occurrence of many kind of cancers as well as causing genetic mutations which can affect the next generation.
In Japan’s case potassium iodide was released into the air. Iodine pills is one of the first measures to take when there is a suspected radiation exposure, in order to prevent the thyroid gland from absorbing too much radioactive iodine. But this is only if inhaled- radioactive iodine can come from other sources like milk and similar dairy products, as well as crops.
To put things in perspective, the incident at Fukushima Nuclear Reactor in Japan is said to be more similar in terms of radioactive exposure to the Three Mile Island incident, a partial core nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania USA, than Chernobyl. It is estimated that radiation levels in Three Mile Island released a million times less radiation than Chernobyl, and caused no fluctuations in the number of cancer rates even after the passing of some decades later.
The public health offices of the US and the UK have issued statements saying that there is no imminent danger to the public because of the vast distance from Japan. In the Philippines which is nearer to Japan, rumors spread about the dangers of going out in the rain without a raincoat for fears of radiation poisoning. The authorities were quick to quell these rumors, saying that there is no danger from rainwater even with the relative proximity of the country to Japan.