Though dangerous levels of radioactivity still pose a threat to the population around the deteriorating nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Power Plant in Japan, Harvard professors say that while the disaster may cause dangerous pollution, its consequences will not reach the most dire predictions.
According to Physics Professor Emeritus Richard Wilson, the fallout from the nuclear reactor explosions in Japan should be nowhere near the level of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, when a Soviet nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown and irradiated many in the area.
Wilson said that the catastrophe in Japan, caused by a 9.0 earthquake that rocked Japan on March 11 and triggered a massive tsunami, is not as bad as it could have been.
“It’s not completely out of the woods, but it’s almost so,” he said. “It’s certainly not as bad as some said it would be.”
Currently the greatest risk to the population is radioactive isotopes of gases like iodine-131 and cesium-137, both of which can contribute to an increase in cancer rates and the possible contamination of food, Wilson said.
He also said that there is little chance of acute radiation sickness in areas surrounding the power plant. According to Wilson, current levels of radioactive pollution being emitted by the plants are insufficient to trigger the sickness.
But radiation levels are significantly higher for workers inside the plant. The Japanese government recently increased the permitted level of radiation exposure for workers in order to allow for a skeleton crew to remain on the site of the stricken reactors.
But according to Medical School Associate Professor Jeffrey R. Garber, a nuclear disaster like the one playing out in northern Japan can also include dangerous ramifications from counterfeit medicines that are peddled as a preventive counter-measure for radiation sickness.
Garber said that potassium iodide that has began to circulate in response to the demand for the compound for its properties that keeps peoples’ thyroids from being contaminated by radioactive iodine.
“The three largest suppliers have sold more of it in three days than three years,” he said. “This created a vacuum in the market that led to an opportunity for some to put out counterfeits into the market.”
These black market counterfeit drugs can have fatal consequences and could cause a number of unforeseen consequences as they are not regulated by the government and could contain any combination of unknown substances.
While iodine-131 can be neutralized by potassium iodide, radioactive cesium-137 carries greater long-term risks. The latter isotope can pollute the soil and enter the food supply through milk. If cows ingest, for example, grass that has been polluted by cesium-137, the milk that they produce also becomes toxic, which poses a health risk for the general population.
Radioactive milk was one of the main causes of death in the aftermath of the disaster in Chernobyl as the population unknowingly ingested contaminated milk.
Cesium-137 also has a half-life of more than 30 years, meaning that the isotope could pose a long-term threat to the environment and the population.