Today marks three weeks since a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated northeastern Japan. Making the situation worse, flooding from the tsunami led to a terrible power failure at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, causing partial core meltdowns in several of the plant’s reactors.
This terrible sequence of events has caused great loss of life, property and economic ruin for Japan. It will take some time to recover and clean up from these events. But what about a hidden, fourth potential form of devastation? Of course there is much talk of the nuclear fallout from the partial nuclear meltdown, but there is another related problem which is not getting much, if any, media coverage. Long term health problems in the form of hypothyroidism and possible cancer from the nuclear radiation leakage to anyone exposed.
The thyroid gland is extremely important in regulating the entire body. It is one of the largest endocrine glands; located in the front of the neck just below the Adam’s Apple. It controls how the body uses energy, makes proteins, controls hormones and the body’s metabolism and even growth rate. Most importantly, it affects almost every system in the body. Left untreated, hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism can cause death.
Current treatment for people with an overactive thyroid gland, or hyperthyroidism, is use of radioactive iodine-131. The purpose of the radioactive iodine is to destroy part or all of the thyroid gland. Unfortunately, this treatment usually kills an excessive amount of the thyroid gland causing an underactive thyroid, hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is much easier to treat than hyperthyroidism, treated with synthetic or natural thyroid hormone in the form of a daily pill, usually taken for life. It is possible, this treatment can cause thyroid cancer, but only usually in particular circumstances.
About 90% of hyperthyroid patients only need one dose of radioactive iodine before they are cured of hyperthyroidism. The dose of radioactive iodine administered is usually 370 MBq (megabecquerels). A becquerel is an SI-unit of measurement of radioactivity. The equivalent of 370 MBq is the same as stating 370 x 106 becquerels or 370,000,000 becquerels. How does this relate to the Japanese radiation issue?
The Fukushima Daiichi plant uses radioactive iodine. More specifically, they use a radioactive iodine-131 isotope – the same given to hyperthyroid patients. As of March 31, the concentration of radioactive iodine in the seawater near the plant is 4,385 times the normal amount. The levels are still increasing, as it was 3,355 times the normal amount just the day before, March 30. Even earlier in the day on March 30, the level was 2,572 times the limit. On March 28, the level was 23,000 becquerel per square meter. The acceptable limits in Japan are 300 becquerels per liter of water for adults and 100 for infants.
The Austrian Institute scientists explain that “while in the body the isotopes’ radioactive emissions can do significant damage, mainly to DNA. Children who ingest iodine-131 can develop thyroid cancer 10 or more years later; adults seem relatively resistant. “ According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health just two weeks ago, it was found that iodine-131 from Chernobyl is still causing new cases of thyroid cancer to appear at an undiminished rate in the areas most affected from that disaster which occurred nearly 25 years ago.
The Austrian researchers have further discovered that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels of 73% of those seen after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Again, treatment for an overactive thyroid gland is a ONE TIME DOSE pill of 370 x 106 becquerels of iodine-131, or 370,000,000 becquerels. For the first couple of days after the accident, readings showed that the amount of iodine coming out of Fukushima was 1.2 to 1.3 x 1017 becquerels per day. That is 120,000,000,000,000,000 bequerels PER DAY. This was just the first few days after the incident. The levels have clearly risen significantly since then and they continue to rise.
Obviously, these levels of iodine-131 are extremely dangerous for anyone. Fallout from the plant has been detected as far away as Boston and in parts of Europe. Although this fallout in these areas far from Japan is miniscule, it does verify that the iodine fallout is not just near the plant. Other areas in Japan may face dangerous levels. Foods may become contaminated. Products made in Japan may also become contaminated. With Japan being a major exporter of goods worldwide, mainly electronic, traces may continue to be found globally.
Sadly, the main threat remains with Japan. Exposure to this form of iodine in high enough levels can clearly affect the thyroid gland. This could mean many Japanese with otherwise healthy bodies could become hypothyroid or even develop thyroid cancer. Japan leads the way globally in industry and academics. If many Japanese become hypothyroid or develop cancer, this will not only cause a slowing in all forms of progress for the country, but it will be very costly. For a country known as having the world’s healthiest population, this could very easily become a silent but long lasting health epidemic.
Radioactive Iodine Treatment of Hyperthyroidism by Thomas Higgins, M.D. Boulder Medical Center. http://www.bouldermedicalcenter.com/articles/RAI_Rx.htm
Radioactive Iodine for Hyperthyroidism: The Most Common Hyperthyroid Treatment in the US by Kresimira Milas, M.D. and Kelly M. Rehan. Endocrineweb. http://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/hyperthyroidism/radioactive-iodine-hyperthyroidism
Fixed Dose Radioactive Iodine Therapy for Hyperthyroidism: The West of Ireland Experience by JH McDermott and J O’Donnell. University College Hospital, Galway, Ireland. Endocrine Abstracts (2006) 11 P784. http://www.endocrine-abstracts.org/ea/0011/ea0011p784.htm
Radioactive Iodine Level Near Fukushima 4,300 Times Above Norm RIA Novosti http://en.rian.ru/world/20110331/163297510.html
Fukushima Governor Sato Slams Japan’s Handling of Nuclear Reactor Disaster by Yuji Okada and Tomoko Yamazaki. Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-26/japan-checks-radiation-in-sea-water-dumped-on-fukushima-s-damaged-reactors.html
How Risky is Infant Formula Made with Tokyo Tap Water? by Richard Knox. NPR. http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/03/24/134804037/how-risky-is-infant-formula-made-with-tokyo-tap-water
Austrian Authorities Release Detailed Data on Japan Radiation by Cyrus Farivar. DW-World. http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,14938445,00.html
Higher Cancer Risk Continues After Chernobyl NIH News. National Institues of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.nih.gov/news/health/mar2011/nci-17.htm Article references the following: Brenner AV, Tronko MD, Hatch M, Bogdanova TI, Oliynik VA, Lubin JH, Zablotska LB, Tereschenko VP, McConnell RJ, Zamotaeva GA, O’Kane P, Bouville AC, Chaykovskaya LV, Greenebaum E, Paster IP, Shpak VM, Ron E. I-131 Dose-Response for Incident Thyroid Cancers in Ukraine Related to the Chernobyl Accident. Mar 17, 2011, EHP, Vol. 119.
Fukushima Radioactive Fallout Nears Chernobyl Levels by Debora MacKenzie. New Scientist. March 24, 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20285-fukushima-radioactive-fallout-nears-chernobyl-levels.html
Fukushima Fallout Reaches Europe, But Traces Tiny by Veronika Oleksyn, Associated Press. March 23, 2011. http://www.boston.com/news/world/europe/articles/2011/03/23/fukushima_fallout_reaches_europe_but_traces_tiny/
Japan ‘The Most Healthy Country’ June 5, 2000. BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/774434.stm