Japan's malfunctioning Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors have raised fears about the Japanese people, and even Americans on the West Coast, being exposed to harmful levels of radiation. But, radiation exposure may be most dangerous for fetuses in Japan.
Yesterday, the United Nations predicted that a radioactive plume could make its way across the Pacific to the United States, The New York Times reports. But despite the high level of fear, experts say the plume will be so diluted by the time it reaches our shores that it will have extremely minor heath consequences for Americans, if it's even detectable.
Of course, the situation in Japan is much more concerning. Japanese officials told everyone within 12 miles of Daiichi to evacuate and those within 20 miles to take shelter, but their recommendation has been undermined by other countries, which are advising their citizens to move even farther away from the radiation. Americans were told to evacuate a 50 mile radius around the plant, and Spanish authorities say people should move 75 miles away.
Now experts are warning that pregnant women in Japan haven't received enough warning about what radiation could do to their unborn child. Earlier this week, Columbia University economist Douglas Almond told the Times that while studying the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, he found that while the radiation that reached people in Sweden didn't harm adults, children who were in utero at the time later "experienced significantly lower cognitive function, as reflected in performance on standardized tests in middle school, especially those tests that correspond best to IQ."
According to the Wall Street Journal, within the first 14 days of pregnancy a high dose of radiation could cause a miscarriage, but fetuses that survive probably won't develop birth defects. However,
According to the CDC, exposure between weeks 2 and 15 is most dangerous, and can result in birth defects, brain damage and stunted growth. But it would take a dose of radiation above the equivalent of about 500 chest x-rays to raise the risk of birth defects or brain problems, the CDC says. Below that, the only elevated risk is a slightly higher risk of cancer later in life - something like an increase of two percentage points above the normal expected risk of about 40% to 50%.
After the 16th week of pregnancy a woman would have to be exposed to as much radiation as 5,000 chest x-rays to produce the same problems.
Fears of radiation have been a part of Japanese culture since the atomic bombs dropped during World War II. The Daily Beast reports that following the war, hibakusha, or "radiation-exposed people" were a source of shame. Parents feared that their children becoming known as hibakusha could hurt their marriage prospects and they often faced other forms of discrimination. Norma Field, a professor of Japanese culture and literature at the University of Chicago, says Japanese mothers aren't concerned about shame today, but they are far more aware of the implications of radiation than people in other countries.
Currently, the exact levels of radiation in Japan are unknown, but Dr. Irina Dardynskaia, a University of Illinois professor of environmental & occupational health sciences, says pregnant women should be able to reduce the risk of birth defects by taking iodine supplements and eating only non-contaminated food. That may not be true if there's a meltdown or explosion at the Daiichi plant, and many are concerned that the next generation in Japan could be hit the hardest.
Scientists Project Path Of Radiation Plume [NYT]
With Quest To Cool Fuel Rods Stumbling, U.S. Sees "Weeks" Of Struggle [NYT]
Radiation And Pregnancy [NYT]
Pregnant Woman And The Risks Of Radiation Exposure [WSJ]
How Will Radiation Affect Unborn Babies in Japan? [Daily Beast]