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Japan Nuclear Reactor Radiation: Experts Warn of Dangers To Pregnant Women.

In the past few days, Japan has been rocked by a massive earthquake, pummeled by a tsunami, and now, facing a possible radiation leak, or worse, from compromised nuclear power plant(s).

Japanese officials insist that the radiation levels are not low enough to do harm. But some experts who have studied the effects of past nuclear disasters fear that the Japanese may not be doing enough to protect its citizens, particularly the pregnant ones.

Sunday’s NYTimes quoted the Columbia professor Douglas Almond, an economist who studied the effects of the Chernobyl disaster in Sweden. His research is truly chilling—especially the part about the radiation levels that were ‘believed safe at the time” and turned out to be far from it…

The fetus may be particularly sensitive to low doses of ionizing radiation, a susceptibility that current public health responses in Japan seem to have overlooked. Evidence comes from a recent study of Chernobyl fallout in Sweden, which experienced comparatively low radiation doses from the accident; indeed radiation levels in Sweden were believed safe at the time.

While this has been largely confirmed in subsequent studies, there is one important exception: children in utero at the time of the accident. Swedish students who were in utero during the accident experienced significantly lower cognitive function, as reflected in performance on standardized tests in middle school, especially those tests that correspond best to IQ.

The damage was greatest for cohorts in utero in regions of Sweden that received more fallout by virtue of rainfall during the time the radioactive plume was over Sweden, and were of gestational age 8-25 weeks at the time of the accident. This last finding mirrors earlier epidemiological analysis of the survivors of Atomic bombings in Japan, which found reduced IQ and head circumference among the cohort exposed to radiation at those gestation ages.

Almond, along with other experts in the field, is urging Japan to issue stronger radiation warnings to its pregnant population, who can, according to this research, be affected by radioactivity at significant distance from the site of the leak. It also seems possible, considering Japan’s size and location, that radioactivity could travel via rain to other nations nearby.

The part of this story that’s scariest to me is the idea that these children were deeply damaged by something their mothers were told was safe. I’m not saying the government necessarily knew otherwise (though things like this do get my conspiracy theory impulses up in a bunch). It just reminds us of the limitations of trust. At times like these, that whole pregnancy-in-a-bubble concept doesn’t sound half bad.

Read the whole story here.

photo: Sakucae/flickr

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