05/04/2011 08:18 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2011

Japanese Workers and Children Overexposed to Radiation

While the world news media has shifted its attention elsewhere, tragedy continues to unfold at Tokyo Electric Power's crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear reactor. The Japan Times reports that several workers have received overexposure to radiation. They also report that the U.S.-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) has released a statement, calling for tougher standards for children who have returned to elementary schools in Fukuskima. PSR calls the risk from contaminated soil on the elementary school grounds unacceptable.

In addition, University of Tokyo professor, Toshiso Kosako, an adviser to Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the Fukushima nuclear crisis in protest, said he would step down from his position due to the government's failure to toughen guidelines on upper limits on radiation levels at elementary schools.

To understand the health risk to both the workers and school children, I asked expert Dr. Joel Rauch M.D. (Rauchwerger) his opinion. Years ago, soon after the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, in 1979, medical doctor, Joel Rauch M.D. (Rauchwerger) was contacted in Houston, Texas, by those investigating health risks, because of his expertise in bone marrow transplantation.

He explains the radiation risk to Japanese workers and children this way:

Depending upon the distance from the site, and the amount of radiation exposure, there are three levels of health risk. From the highest to the lowest levels of severity, they include:

1.) A lethal, high dose of radiation, similar to the atomic radiation over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That dose of radiation totally destroys the bone marrow (aplastic anemia); hence, a bone marrow transplant is the usual therapy for this individual.

The bone marrow, which is the soft gelatinous substance inside most of the bones of the body, but especially in the long bones and pelvis, is the body's factory for two major systems. The first is the hemopoitic (blood) and the second is the lymphatic (immune) system.

When the bone marrow is wiped out by high doses of radiation, the production is immediately stopped for three major elements: red blood cells (erythrocytes), white blood cells (leucocytes; cancer of the leucocytes is called leukemia), and thrombocytes (platelets). We need these three elements, especially the red blood cells, because they are the only cells of the body that carry oxygen to the tissues.

The reason why this dose is fatal is because the person will die from hypoxia, meaning not enough oxygen, or oxygen starvation. And secondarily, from infection, due to the loss of the immune system.

2.) The second health risk is gross chromosomal breaks in the somatic (body) cells. These can be observed at any hospital by a technician doing a standard karyotype. That is, taking a sample of cells and looking for a gross break in the chromosomes. This is more of a diagnostic tool for determining whether a person received enough exposure to create health risks.

3.) And finally, chronic, very low level radiation is known to mutate bone marrow cells and cause leukemia. This health risk must be followed for years, says Dr. Rauch, to see if the incidence, especially in children (as in childhood leukemia) exists. For this reason, especially, it is important for the region to be cordoned off to the public, perhaps for many decades.

In the early 1970's, Dr. Rauch M.D. (Rauchwerger) was part of the medical team that worked on the case of the "baby in the bubble," the baby born without an immune system. Because of this, he has had a lifelong interest in ways to protect and support the immune system.