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Nuclear Meltdown in Japan: What's the Risk of Radiation?

FAQ on Radiation Risk From Tsunami-Damaged Nuclear Plants

Are radiation-contaminated foods being imported from Japan?

Because of the extensive damage from the earthquake and tsunami, the FDA says food exports from Japan are "severely limited."

Nevertheless, the FDA says it "is collecting information on all FDA-regulated food products exported to the U.S. from Japan, including where they are grown, harvested, or manufactured."

The agency says it will evaluate whether there is any risk to U.S. consumers. New monitoring efforts "may include increased and targeted product sampling at the border."

Fish and seafood will not be affected by the radiation, as the Pacific Ocean quickly dilutes radioactive material.

Could the nuclear disaster in Japan happen in the U.S.?

The United States has 23 nuclear reactors, at 16 different nuclear power plants, that are designed exactly like the reactors leaking radiation in Japan.

In an ominous 1972 memo, a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission warned that the "safety disadvantages" of these reactors outweighed their advantages.

However, the nuclear plants in Japan were hit by an earthquake and tsunami of record proportions. This doesn't mean the aging U.S. plants are safe -- but neither does it mean they are an imminent danger.

Who is most at risk from radiation exposure?

Radiation risks are different for people at different stages of life:

  • Radiation has harmful effects on child development.
  • Radiation can induce cancers that appear years after an adult is exposed.
  • Elderly people's cells may have reduced ability to repair damage from radiation.

"Radiation research worldwide has been very much in decline, and has only received a little boost since 9/11," Williams says. "In the past 10 to 20 years research has focused on medical radiation therapy and not on accidental or incidental exposure."

According to Lisandro Irizarry, MD, chair of emergency medicine at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York, symptoms of acute radiation poisoning are nausea and vomiting. Other symptoms include fever, dizziness, disorientation, and bloody diarrhea. Symptom onset is quickest with the greatest radiation exposure.

Radiation received for medical reasons can also cause serious side effects.

What is the best way to prevent radiation exposure?

In the event of a nuclear accident, people living near nuclear power plants generally are provided with potassium iodide pills. That's because radiation leaks tend to carry radioactive iodine. The pills load the thyroid gland with iodine and prevent uptake of radioactive molecules.

But the best way to prevent radiation exposure is to stay indoors, close the windows, and turn off external sources of air, such as air-conditioning, until the all-clear is given or until you can safely be evacuated from a contaminated area.

"Contamination from fallout comes from touching a contaminated surface, from it falling, from inhaling it, or ingesting it," Williams says. "So in case of an event, be sure to drink bottled water and eat only sealed food that has not been outside."

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