The Facts About Radiation Poisoning

The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan has led to a nuclear crisis as well. Japanese authorities are having a difficult time keeping several reactors cool enough to prevent a meltdown and an uncontrolled release of radiation. But they are assuring the public that a large radiation leak is highly unlikely.

Still, it's not surprising that the very possibility of any size radiation leak has many of us on edge. When catastrophes like this happen, it helps to have the facts on hand.

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Does the radiation that's leaked from the reactor at Japan's nuclear power stations pose a health risk to people in the United States?
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has stated that it does not expect to experience "any harmful levels" of radiation in Hawaii, Alaska or on our Pacific coast. In addition, The World Health Organization says it believes that global health risks from the troubled reactors seem fairly low for now, and that winds are likely to carry any radioactive contamination out to the Pacific Ocean.

What happens if you're exposed to high levels of radiation?
Exposure can cause radiation poisoning, which results in significant damage to human body tissues, premature aging and possibly death. Exposure to lower levels for a prolonged period of time increases the risk of poor health. A few workers at one of the reactors were reported to have shown symptoms of radiation sickness during the crisis.

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What are the symptoms of radiation poisoning?
Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are typically the first symptoms and can begin minutes to days after exposure. The duration of the symptoms ranges from minutes to a week. Even if someone has acute radiation syndrome and the symptoms last only minutes, they may still look and feel fine - at least for a short period. Additional symptoms will eventually follow including loss of appetite, fatigue, fever, and possibly seizures and coma. This stage may last a few hours or several months. Radiation poisoning also typically causes skin damage.

What level of radiation is dangerous?
Radiation is measured in Sieverts and the devastation of the radiation poisoning depends on the amount of Sieverts. For example, one Sievert of radiation can cause hemorrhaging and 2,000 Sieverts can cause loss of consciousness within minutes and death within hours.

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Can radiation poisoning be treated?
In some ways yes, but in other ways no. Potassium iodide can block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid gland, protecting it from injury. However, it won't protect other parts of the body, or reverse damage to the thyroid once it has occurred.

Robin Westen is the author of "10 Days to Detox: How to Look and Feel a Decade Younger."


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