Tsunami survivors facing a terrifying new threat
Published 16/03/2011 | 05:00
Survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are now facing the terrifying prospect of a radiation leak damaging their health.
Dangerous levels of radiation have been recorded near the Fukushima power plant and levels are rising in Tokyo, 150 miles south, and at US naval bases hundreds of miles to the north.
Even the stoical Japanese people are beginning to panic and the government has evacuated everyone from a 12-mile exclusion zone and told people six miles further out to stay indoors.
- How can radiation damage your health?
Radiation smashes up the DNA of your cells. It can have both short-term and long-term effects depending on the dose. At very high levels it can cause radiation sickness, symptoms of which include burns, vomiting, diarrhoea and destruction of the immune system. This often leads to death within a few weeks.
Lower doses can be equally as deadly over a long term. Even small changes to your DNA can lead to irreparable cell damage, causing cancer and birth defects.
- Has Japan reached dangerous levels?
Only workers at the plant are likely to have been put in danger of a massive dose of radiation. However, they wear protective suits and have monitors that tell them when they are in danger.
- What can be done?
People should stay away from the affected areas and those in danger issued with iodine tablets. If you have been exposed then taking a shower and removing clothes will remove any radioactive dust from your body. But if you have already ingested radiation then you have to hope it does not cause too much damage before it passes naturally out of the body.
Staying indoors and wearing masks offers only limited protection from larger particles of radioactive dust.
- How long before it is safe?
It all depends on the radioactive particles released. Nitrogen 16 isotopes burn out within seconds but strontium and caesium, usually released when the core breaks down, can remain active for many years. An exclusion zone around Chernobyl in the Ukraine remains in place 25 years after the leak.
- Are other countries at risk?
Unlikely at the moment. But a major explosion could send a plume of radioactive dust into the atmosphere which could be carried by wind and spread to nearby countries. Ireland is unlikely to see any fallout.