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Understanding the Health Impacts and Risks of Exposure to Radiation

Taylor A. Choi, Sylvain V. Costes and Rebecca J. Abergel

Abstract In this chapter, the biological effects of exposure to radiation are summarized and explained from the perspective of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. First, a series of fundamental concepts in radiation biology are addressed to define the different types and sources of ionizing radiation, and resulting paths of human exposure. The health effects prompted by exposure to radiation are then broadly categorized and correlated with the nature of exposure and its extent. Finally, those concepts are revisited to assess the potential health impacts and risks endured by the workers and general population affected by the uncontrolled release of radiation around the Fukushima area. In the wake of the 2011 accident, a surge of public concern over the safety of nuclear energy and potential health risks from radiation exposure has re-surfaced. To evaluate, understand, and mitigate those health risks, it is essential that scientific data be meticulously gathered, rigorously analyzed, and accurately communicated. Taking a systematic knowledge-based approach to accurately capture the risks of exposure to radiation will not only alleviate mass confusion, but also help public health officials and emergency responders better prepare and implement logistics, should another such unfortunate event take place. The topics discussed in this chapter are intended to provide basic tools for understanding how health effects and risks related to radiation exposure are evaluated.

Keywords Health effects Radiation exposure Contamination Radionuclides


In March 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami led to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) accident, which released a large amount of radioactive material into the environment. While ionizing radiation is a ubiquitous and natural phenomenon that occurs all around us [1], a major release of radioactivity to the environment is always of concern, as it could result in acute and long-term health effects in surrounding populations.

Naturally occurring sources of radiation are broadly categorized into cosmic, terrestrial (e.g., earth's crust, soil, and construction material), and internal radiation [1, 2]. In addition, people are routinely exposed to man-made radiation from nuclear medical diagnostics (e.g., X-ray and Computerized Tomography scans) and treatment procedures, nuclear power plants, commercial flying, and even smoking [2]. However, scientific evidence from past events have demonstrated that any major uncontrolled release of radiation could be harmful and warrants immediate response to assess and minimize public health risks.

About two years after the Fukushima Daiichi NPP disaster, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a global report on 'Health Risk Assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami based on preliminary dose estimation' [3]. Conducted by an independent team of international experts on radiation risk, this comprehensive study concluded that, for the general population inside and outside of Japan, the predicted risks were low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline were anticipated.

The WHO report was the fi large analysis of the global health effects due to radiation exposure after the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident [3]. As additional data are gathered and further monitoring and analysis of radiation levels are performed, a more accurate picture of the health risks will be drawn. This chapter is intended to briefl summarize important concepts in radiation biology that are the basis for understanding how health effects and risks related to radiation exposure are evaluated. The second part of this chapter then focuses on the health impacts resulting from the radiation release around the Fukushima Daiichi NPP. Rather than be an in-depth review of lowdose radiation, this chapter is intended to provide background information on low-dose ionizing radiation and integrate the information in order to better understand the effects of low-dose ionizing radiation from the perspective of the Fukushima Daiichi accident. For further reading on low-dose radiation, we refer readers to Appendix B.

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