As I watch the tragedy unfolding in Japan since an 8.9-magnitude earthquake rocked the nation this morning, triggering a deadly tsunami, I am realizing just how much devastation this small country is potentially facing – and it’s scary
Hundreds of people have already died, and I’m sure the number will continue to rise as the clean-up efforts kick into high gear.
But new concerns are growing. The massive earthquake caused a power outage that disabled a nuclear power plant’s cooling system in the Onahoma city, about 170 miles north of Tokyo.
Surging radiation levels of 1,000 times more than normal have caused an evacuation of 3,000 people near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—making it the first-ever state of emergency declared at a nuclear plant in Japan.
Soon after the evacuation order, the government announced that the plant will release “slightly radioactive vapor from the unit to lower the pressure in an effort to protect it from a possible meltdown.”
Government officials said the amount of radioactive elements leaking from the plant would be "very small" and would not affect the environment or human health—if the leak is kept under control.
However, if they cannot continue to restore cooling of the plant, it could become a very dangerous situation to those living in close range of the plant, and the fallout would only spread.
If the reactor does indeed melt down, the results could be similar – if not worse – than that of Chernobyl.
When a reactor at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine went out of control in April of 1986 during a low-power test that led to an explosion and subsequent meltdown, it contaminated 58,000 square miles of land between Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine, and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents.
The reactor meltdown released a hundred radioactive elements into the atmosphere including dangerous iodine, strontium and caesium, which are the most dangerous, and can still be found in the affected areas today.
In the years since this devastating accident, studies on groups of emergency workers and individuals with the highest exposure rates have linked the radioactive fallout to several health consequences like certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and death.
Radiation is predicated on three factors: total exposure, how close you were to the accident and how much time you were exposed to it.
The human body is very resilient and has mechanisms in place to repair damage to cells from radiation and chemical carcinogens. But exposure to high levels of ionizing radiation can lead to radiation sickness, and sometimes, permanent biophysical changes to the cells.
The severity of radiation sickness depends on the amount of radiation the person encounters and the amount of time he or she is exposed.
Symptoms can arise at any point after exposure. It can be immediate or occur over days, weeks or months.
Early exposure symptoms can include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache and fever.
Signs that may appear in the days following exposure include: dizziness, disorientation, weakness, fatigue, hair loss, bloody vomit and stools, infections, poor wound healing and low blood pressure.
But radioactive fallout traveling through the environment can pose long-term health consequences depending on the amount of exposure — and chronic exposure to these high levels of radiation can cause more serious conditions like cancer and premature aging.
From the time a person becomes contaminated to the time when he or she starts developing symptoms is a good indicator of just how significant the radiation exposure is. The earlier the signs show up, the more concentrated the exposure.
The most important thing to remember is if someone experiences any of these issues he or she should not remain in that area. They should seek emergency treatment immediately and destroy their contaminated clothing.
Right now, it seems the Japanese government is controlling the situation. And we can only pray that it stays that way.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Click here for more information on Dr. Manny's work with Hackensack University Medical Center. Visit AskDrManny.com for more.