Monday, October 31, 2011


You don’t have to look far to find examples of extreme weather events and environmental disasters that have wreaked havoc across the U.S. and abroad over the past year — tornados, earthquakes, and severe cases of drought and famine are on the shortlist. This morning’s Annual Meeting session on "Late Breaking Developments in Public Health" highlighted a few with a specific focus on the public health response.

Nearly a year after the devastating earthquake in Japan that left significant damage, including a destroyed nuclear facility in its wake, health officials are still exploring the continued impact of radiation exposure to Japanese residents as well as potential impacts to Americans from contaminated dust that has transferred across U.S. borders, according to session presenters. Radiation, even in low doses, can have significant adverse health effects and is known to stay in the body for a considerable time. Some materials, such as children’s shoes and car filters, can retain radioactive particulate matter over time. Exposures to radiation can occur through inhalation of dust particles containing radioactive elements, ingestion of contaminated food and skin contact. Through soil sampling in multiple regions in Japan, Boston (which is at the same latitude as the Fukushima disaster) and Seattle, researchers discovered varying levels of soil radiation. Weather patterns appear to be responsible, at least in part, for bringing radiation exposure from the Japanese disaster to the U.S.

Lessons learned from the disaster have significant implications for future response and planning around accidental destruction or damage to nuclear reactors. In the case of the Fukushima disaster, there was a 12-mile evacuation zone, which appears to be inadequate in protecting the public’s health, presenters said. Current U.S. standards require only a 10-mile zone for accidental airborne exposures that may occur as a result of nuclear reactions.

Session presenter Kathryn Bolles, who's with Save the Children, discussed the health challenges facing developing nations as a result of drought and famine as well as her organization’s efforts targeting East African populations. Food insecurity is rising as drought and famine have ravaged communities living in the Horn of Africa, she said. On an up note, Save the Children reported recent successes with interventions that have led to greater collaboration among nonprofit organizations serving the region, federal agencies and governments. The agencies and organizations have garnered proven results in their efforts to support local farmers, and now more supplies and mobile medical services are reaching those most in need.

Frontline public health workers are at the core of these preparedness and response efforts — keep up the great work friends!

— M.S.

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