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The Effects of Radiation

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News of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan continues to emerge on a daily basis. Ever since the natural disaster occurred, and particularly in the last couple of weeks, the focus has largely shifted to the unfolding nuclear disaster at the nuclear power plants that were in the path of the tsunami. The disaster is now being discussed as one of the biggest nuclear disasters in history. All of the talk of radiation raises serious concerns and fears about what health effects radiation presents, and if any level of radiation is really save.

Whether radiation stems from a nuclear disaster like the one in Japan, regularly used medical equipment like x-ray machines, or just from our environment, there can be health consequences. Those health effects may be immediate and serious, or they can result in health issues that only emerge years after the exposure.

The severity or type of health effect depends upon the amount of radiation a person is exposed to and the duration of that exposure. Health issues might stem from long-term exposure to relatively low levels of radiation, such as medical equipment, or they can arise out of intense, but short-term exposure to high level of radiation, such as what we are seeing unfold with the earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. The length and type of exposure determines how strongly the health effects are felt and how quickly they become apparent.

When radiation exposure occurs at low levels over an extended period of time, the adverse health effects of radiation exposure are delayed. This could be true, for example, with exposure to the very small level of “background “ radiation exposure is naturally present in our environment, and particularly as a result of some basic medical procedures, such as X-rays, CT-scans, and mammographies. While the general public is very unlikely to be affected by radiation from these sources, which are generally considered safe, cancer is the primary health effect that stems from long-term exposure to low radiation levels. Radiation affects our health at the cellular level, disrupting our cells’ natural growth and replication process, thus making the likelihood of cancer—the uncontrolled growth of cells—more likely. Aside from cancer, radiation can also alter our DNA, causing mutations that can affect a developing fetus in pregnant women or even just cause mutations to be passed on to offspring at a later date.

On the other hand, short-term, intense exposure to high radiation levels gives rise to non-cancerous health effects. These effects are likely to appear relatively quickly and can include burns and radiation sickness or poisoning, also known as Acute Radiation Syndrome. The symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome include nausea, weakness, hair loss, diarrhea, skin burns, and diminished organ function. These symptoms will make their appearance in the immediate time period following exposure to the radiation. Following these initial symptoms, the individual may actually return to feeling healthy, but symptoms can reappear in the form of appetite loss, fatigue, fever, nausea, seizures and coma. Radiation poisoning can result in premature aging and even death.

Individuals who have been exposed to radiation at concerning levels—particularly as a result of a radiation emergency like we are seeing in Japan—should seek immediate treatment from a physician.