Tens of thousands of people have been forced out of their homes in areas surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear generating station because of fear of radiation exposure.
“The stress of evacuation can itself cause death, so it is important not to overreact,” states Jane Orient, M.D., president of Physicians for Civil Defense.
The question of reasonable criteria for evacuation in the event of a radiation accident was discussed at a recent meeting of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness. A sensible standard requires comparison with natural background radiation, to which people are constantly and unavoidably exposed.
The “Denver dose” of 3 mSv/yr is the amount of radiation that residents of Denver receive over and above the average background dose of 2.4 mSv/yr. The current International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) evacuation standard of 1 mSv/yr would appear to require the evacuation of Denver and many other areas.
Much higher background levels occur in some areas in India, Iran, and Brazil. In such areas, cancer levels tend to be lower than normal. No one has been provably injured while working within a dose limit of 600 mSv/yr (0.2 rad/day or 2mSv/day). This corresponds to high natural background and the “red zone” around Fukushima.
“The ‘cancer dose’ that some people calculate assumes that even one ‘hit’ from a gamma ray can induce a cancer,” explains Dr. Orient. “In fact, every cell in the body experiences 200,000 ‘hits’ per day from natural processes. Low-dose radiation stimulates the natural repair mechanisms.”
Accidental radiation exposure from cobalt-60 contaminated steel in Taiwan apartments actually seemed to “immunize” residents against cancer, according to a study published in 2004.
“Panic that leads to disruptions in people’s lives is deadly as well as costly,” Dr. Orient says. “It’s especially tragic when fear-driven measures ‘protect’ people from levels of radiation that are far more likely to benefit than to harm them.”
Physicians for Civil Defense distributes information for helping to save lives in the event of natural disaster, terrorism, or war.
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