by Elizabeth Grossman

Even before news of the crisis at the Fukushima and other Japanese nuclear power plants damaged by Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami arrived, raising public health concerns to an alarming level, the scenes of destruction prompted many questions about how public health – and that of first responders – would be protected during immediate rescue efforts, and later as clean up and restoration get underway. The awful loss of life demands much of our attention, but it’s also essential to consider future health issues for those working on rescue and recovery.

Right now all attention is on the nuclear plants as their threats trump all others. In the best of all possible scenarios the radiation risk will not be catastrophic, but there have already been a large number of exposures requiring medical attention. No matter what happens, the damaged plants need to be worked on and eventually cleaned up. Injuries at the plants have already occurred, most recently Monday morning when a hydrogen explosion at the no. 3 reactor of Fukushima reactor no. 1, injuring 11. And there are numerous other toxic contaminants that need to be protected against as rescue efforts continue, the injured are cared for, and hundreds of thousands of people who’ve lost their homes are sheltered.

In the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami, Japanese and international news accounts are reporting power outages, industrial fires, and cuts in municipal water service. On Sunday afternoon March 13, The Guardian reported that according to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, about 2.6 million households nationwide are without power and 1.4 million without drinking water. Lack of readily available clean water and plumbing increase the risk of diseases’ spread.

With the horrifying wreckage of devastated homes, buildings, vehicles, boats, crops, airports, and factories, come ruptured fuel and sewer lines. The Japanese news service NHK is reporting more than 46,000 buildings damaged. In the black smoke and ash billowing from burning homes will be hazardous chemical residue from plastics, heavy metals, insulation, and upholstery foams. This adds to the potential health hazards of the biological debris.

Several of the prefectures affected by the earthquake are major petrochemical-producing areas. Among their products are fuel compounds and solvents. On March 12, Chemical Week reported:

Five ethylene plants are located in Chiba. Kashima is in Ibaraki and is the site of Japan’s biggest ethylene plant, operated by Mitsubishi Chemical. Details of operation levels at these and other plants are difficult to obtain because telephone lines are down and power supplies have been cut in the worst affected areas. However, many petrochemical facilities are thought to be off-stream.

Many chemical plants are reported to have been shut down as a precautionary measure. Several are reported damaged. A fire has been reported at a petrochemical plant in Chiba that produces coal tar, benzene, toluene, and xylene and industrial gases, including nitrogen and argon..An oil refinery there is also one of several oil refinery fires reported.

Photographs show rescue workers and other responders wearing protective clothing, including respirators, and many people with simple face masks. Its strict building codes and regular disaster drills demonstrate that Japan has devoted extensive efforts to planning for a major earthquake. But what Japan is now coping with is almost beyond imagining. The widespread destruction and ongoing nuclear crisis will test the national leadership’s ability to communicate accurately (essential for public trust) while ensuring the calm needed for safe and effective response.

Meanwhile here at home, the budget approved by the House Republican majority would cut funding to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center that sent out alerts when the quake struck, and whose website was overwhelmed by traffic early Friday morning when waves were forecast to strike the Pacific states.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

Comments

  1. #1 g724
    March 15, 2011

    I’m going to disagree that the nuclear crisis “trumps all others.”

    #1 on the list is drinking water supply and sewage disposal, with food supply and garbage disposal close on its heels as #2. Toxic chemical exposures from disrupted refineries and chemical plants come in at #3, and the nuclear crisis rates maybe 4 that could rise to 3 if there is a substantial core breach at any of the reactors.

    Without clean drinking water and sanitary sewage disposal, diarrheal diseases will become a major issue that could result in thousands of fatalities.

    Somewhere on our list should also be the issue of vector-borne diseases carried by flies and rodents that will make full use of piles of debris and organic matter.

    Nuclear accidents are “dramatic,” but absence of sanitation is the proven #1 killer throughout history.

  2. #2 Elizabeth Grossman
    March 15, 2011

    Thanks for this comment. Perhaps I should have said more explicitly that for a great many people concern – or fear – of health impacts of radiation trumps all others. This may be in part due to the fact that we know how to prevent diseases associated with lack of clean water and with sewage contamination, whereas the drift of radioactive particles cannot be dealt with similarly. And the current nuclear emergency is making it much more difficult to get the kind of aid in that’s needed to prevent incidence of the kinds of diseases you highlight.

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