How do we protect ourselves on the West Coast of the U.S. as the atmosphere carries the radiation to us? Who is monitoring radiation levels in the air moving towards the West Coast? Are there iodine supplies for U.S. citizens and who will distribute them?
In the reactors right now, there is a build up of hydrogen gas. They have to vent this gas to prevent the pressure from getting too high and causing an explosion. Venting the gas also releases some radioactive particles into the environment. The related risks depend on how much is vented. The winds are in an offshore direction at the moment, so the radioactive materials are blown into the sea, where they will be significantly diluted. A U.S. ship has detected this radioactive plume, but it is at very low levels. While we don't know how much radiation will ultimately be released, there is no significant radiation exposure right now. One of the experts I interviewed this week told me it would be inconceivable that citizens of the United States would be at risk of significantly elevated radiation exposures.
Radioactive iodine, one of the potential radioactive particles, can build up in your thyroid, and put one at risk for thyroid problems, including cancer. Potassium Iodide (KI) is an oral medication that is a stable form of iodine and can flood the thyroid gland, and essentially block the radioactive form from getting into the gland. There are no recommendations for citizens of the United Stated to purchase KI, which is available in most pharmacies. If there is a recommendation made, it comes from local health agencies, as opposed to the federal government.
Obviously, the first health concern is bodily injuries. What are the immediate health concerns after that?
Having covered earthquakes in Haiti and Pakistan and the Tsunami in south Asia, I have seen the health concerns as they develop. This tsunami occurred along the northeast coast of Japan, an area where many retirement communities are located. As a result, many of the injured were elderly. Even nearly a full week later, search and rescue missions continue, and the weather has been bitterly cold. Basic supplies remain in short supply in many areas, and because the roads are covered in debris, distribution is quite challenging. The largest percentage of the injured have been the "walking wounded." They are people with non life-threatening injuries. A smaller percentage had critical injuries such as near drowning, cardiac arrest, crush and head injuries. Getting these patients to hospitals as quickly as possible has been a priority. Rebuilding communities that have been washed away will be a much longer term goal. One of the issues that is often overlooked is the significant mental anguish that tragedy like this causes. While physical care can be life-saving, mental health professionals are needed immediately to help alleviate the suffering.
I heard there are immediate supply problems, especially with water, in areas of Japan. Are these affecting areas impacted directly by the tsunami, or are these more widespread? Are Japanese cities equipped with water tower that provides several hours of potable water to the people?
Having traveled to some of the most devastated areas, they feel cut off from the rest of the world. There is no electricity, communication, medications, and supplies are starting to run out. Supermarkets and individual homes were the primary source of food and water in the first few days. After that, it was a priority to move people to areas where supplies could be more easily distributed, but that is not an easy task, given the destruction of the roads. Helicopter-assisted aid is critical in situations like this. These air missions can not only aid in search and rescue, but also drop supplies and help in critical evacuations. Ten U.S. helicopters have been flying missions this week to supplement the Japanese Defense Forces missions.
What is the most significant thing Americans can do right now to have an immediate impact to help those most in need in Japan right now?
At this time, we are still in the acute phase of disaster management. Basic supplies are still a necessity, including water, food and blankets, given the temperatures. Increasing capabilities to conduct air missions is a priority given how difficult it is to travel to some of these regions. Search and rescue teams from all over the world have come to help, utilizing everything from trained rescue dogs to sonar techniques to look below the rubble. Over the long term, numerous coastal communities will need to be rebuilt. While Japan is very different from Haiti, and is financially much more stable, the cost of this disaster will be one of the most costly in recent history.
We've listed some organizations that are offering assistance to Japan here.
What has surprised you the most or perhaps been the most revealing in terms of how Japan is dealing with the aftermath of this disaster?
Santa Barbara, CA
There are several things that have surprised me. While traveling through hard hit areas, seeing the tremendous loss of life and well being, the citizens were standing in well-organized lines, with remarkably civil behavior. It is surprising because many of these people had gone without basic supplies for days. The temperatures were below freezing, and many of them didn't have coats - some were without shoes. I saw an impromptu water brigade form at an evacuation center where hundreds of people lined up with buckets to make sure everyone had some water.
I was also amazed at how little damage the earthquake caused, relative to the extraordinary magnitude of the earthquake. This was an official 9.0 earthquake, and yet most of the building withstood the tremor. I was in Kobe, Japan just a few months ago, and saw how that city rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake. Now in Japan, the building codes are among the most strict in the world, and building remained standing as a result. It was the subsequent tsunami that caused the majority of the damage.
I have also been disturbed by the lack of transparency regarding the nuclear reactors and the safety concerns. There was almost an unwillingness to share information the first couple days after the earthquake, and it was only four days later that real concerns were raised for human health. In a country that is so dependent on nuclear energy, there seemed to be a lackadaisical attitude toward sharing information with the public. It took several days for the alarm bells to be rung on the safety front, and for the Prime Minister's office to acknowledge the potential impact on human health.