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In the wake of the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, there has been much discussion in the news about the risk of a nuclear disaster and the health effects of radiation exposure for the victims of this natural disaster, who are in our thoughts and prayers. The health consequences of excessive radiation exposure—from any source, whether a damaged nuclear reactor or malfunctioning medical equipment—can be immediate and serious, but they can also involve problems that don’t emerge until many years after exposure.

In short, the amount and duration of the exposure to radiation affects the severity or type of health effect. These health effects can be associated with long-term exposure to low levels of radiation, such as medical equipment or they can be associated with short-term exposure to high levels of radiation, such as in the event of a disaster. How strongly the health effects are felt and how quickly they become apparent depends on which type of exposure an individual suffers.

Adverse health effects of radiation exposure are delayed when that exposure has been at low levels over an extended period of time. A very small level of “background “ radiation exposure is naturally present in our environment, and can result from some basic medical procedures, such as X-rays, CT-scans, and mammographies. Cancer is the primary health effect that stems from long-term exposure to low radiation levels. Radiation affects our health at the cellular level, disrupting our cells’ natural growth and replication process, thus making the likelihood of cancer—the uncontrolled growth of cells—more likely. Aside from cancer, radiation can also alter our DNA, causing mutations that can affect a developing fetus in pregnant women or even cause mutations to be passed on to offspring at a later date.

Many of the non-cancerous effects of radiation are actually linked to the short-term, but intense exposure to radiation. These effects are likely to appear relatively quickly and can include burns and radiation sickness or poisoning, also known as Acute Radiation Syndrome. The symptoms of Acute Radiation Syndrome—which appear immediately—include nausea, weakness, hair loss, diarrhea, skin burns, and diminished organ function. Following these immediate symptoms, the individual may actually return to feeling healthy, but symptoms can reappear in the form of appetite loss, fatigue, fever, nausea, seizures and coma. Radiation poisoning can result in premature aging and even death.

Individuals who have been exposed to radiation at concerning levels—particularly as a result of a radiation emergency like we are seeing in Japan—should seek immediate treatment from a physician.

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