FAQ Earthquake in Japan


What is the current situation in Japan?

On 11 March 2011, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 shook Japan. The epicenter of the quake was along the northeastern coast of Honshu, with the most affected area being the eastern coast of the Tohoku region. Tsunamis have caused devastation in the coastal areas of Tohoku and southern Hokkaido, killing thousands of people. The population surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been evacuated due to the probable danger of radiation exposure in the area. For more up-to-date information on the situation in Japan, visit the IAEA website (http:/iaea.org/newscenter/news/tsunamiupdate01.html).

How does the situation in Japan affect the Americas?

The situation in Japan is in flux. At this point, based on the available information, there is no evidence that Japan’s crisis poses a public health threat to the Americas.

How is PAHO responding to the situation?

On the day the earthquake hit, Dr. Mirta Roses expressed condolences on behalf of PAHO and offered assistance to the Japanese government. PAHO’s Emergency Operations Center is monitoring the situation daily, assessing it in terms of its impact on the Region. PAHO works within WHO and alongside other international organizations to obtain first-hand information and monitor the various activities of these agencies. It has responded to questions from the countries of the Region about the situation and its impact on the Hemisphere and held a teleconference with them to provide updates and answer questions. It has also handled requests for information from the media.


Should any preventive steps be taken in the Region?

At present, radiation levels in the Region are low and do not warrant any special action on the part of other countries. However, the situation should continue to be monitored, as events are in flux.

Is travel to Japan possible?

At this time, PAHO does not recommend restrictions on travel to Japan. However, travelers should refrain from visiting the areas most affected by the earthquake and tsunami. Interruptions of essential services, such as transportation and electricity, as well as the relief effort that is under way, especially the emergency response and containment activities related to the damaged nuclear power plant, will hinder travel and could tax resources needed for rescue workers and the local population. Furthermore, the Japanese authorities have prohibited travel to the evacuated and exclusion zones surrounding the Fukushima I nuclear power plant.

In general, people without a pressing need to travel to these areas should seriously consider postponing any trip to a region where the infrastructure has been heavily damaged and where authorities are addressing humanitarian needs.

What precautions should be taken when traveling to Japan?

Travelers should be aware of the risk of more earthquakes in Japan. Furthermore, there will be areas with limited electricity, fuel, food, and water.

People who travel to Japan should pay attention to local news reports, follow the advice and instructions of the local authorities, and notify their embassy or consulate about their travel plans, including lodging.

Information about the status of nuclear energy facilities in Fukushima can be found on the websites of Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). For additional information, the WHO website may be consulted.

Do people arriving from Japan pose a health hazard to others?

No, not at this time.

Only people involved in the emergency response near the nuclear power plant are in areas with high levels of radioactivity. For their own safety, all personnel must undergo decontamination before departing the area. People within a 20 km radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and who have followed the appropriate detection and decontamination procedures, as well as those coming from other parts of the country, do not pose a risk of radioactivity to others, nor do they need to be checked.

What are the international implications of the recent reports on the presence of radioactivity in food in Japan?

The results indicate that some food produced in Japan is likely to be contaminated with radionuclides in concentrations unsafe for human consumption. Food producers and consumers in Japan are those most affected at the moment, and the government is advising them about the implications of these results. However, right now there is no evidence that radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear power plant has contaminated food produced in other countries.

Will the nuclear emergency affect all food production in Japan?

No, it will not affect all food production. Food that was delivered or packaged commercially before the nuclear emergency was not contaminated. Still, there has been some contamination of food produced in areas where radioactive material has been deposited. For this reason, Japanese authorities have begun monitoring the situation and are taking steps to solve the problem.

Is it necessary it to take any steps with respect to food coming from Japan?

Not at this time. See what steps your country has taken with regard to food imports.

Food contamination involves the risk of exposure. Nevertheless, contaminated food would have to be consumed over a prolonged period before it would pose a hazard to human health.

Radioactivity has been found in certain vegetables and milk; moreover, some of the initial results of food monitoring indicate the presence of radioactive iodine in concentrations higher than those established as safe by the Japanese authorities. Radioactive cesium has also been detected.

Local authorities have advised citizens to avoid these foods and have taken steps to prevent their sale and distribution.

What general advice can you offer consumers and food producers in the event of a nuclear emergency?

The response to a food emergency caused by radioactivity should be the same as for any food contamination emergency caused by a hazardous substance. In the initial phases of the emergency, insofar as it is safe to do so, immediate steps can be taken to prevent or minimize the contamination of food by radioactive material.

For example, the following can be done: protect any food and feed stored outside by covering it with plastic or tarps; close ventilation ducts in greenhouses to protect fruits and vegetables; corral cattle or otherwise shelter them; harvest ripe crops and cover them before the fallout begins. If there has already been fallout, don’t harvest the food but instead, wait for instructions to be issued once contamination levels have been measured.

Many other measures must be considered for the short, medium, and long term in critically contaminated areas; for example, avoid consuming milk or locally produced vegetables; avoid slaughtering animals; avoid eating, catching, or harvesting aquatic plants and animals (fish, shellfish, and algae); and avoid hunting, mushroom gathering, and berry picking.


What are the acute effects of radiation exposure?

If the dose of radiation exceeds certain thresholds, it can produce acute effects such as reddening of the skin (erythema), hair loss, burns, and acute radiation syndrome.

Members of rescue teams, first responders, and plant workers are more likely to be exposed to a dose of radiation high enough to cause acute effects.

In the event of an accident at a nuclear power plant, the population is unlikely to be exposed to sufficiently high doses of radiation to cause those effects.

What are the most important public health measures?

Only the competent authorities can recommend the necessary public health measures, after conducting a careful analysis of the emergency.

Health is affected only if someone is exposed to radiation; therefore, the best protection is to avoid exposure. People in close proximity to the radiation are at highest risk; those further away from the radiation are at lower risk. For that reason, when a nuclear accident occurs, the recommended safety measures include evacuation and the provision of shelter for those nearest the site of the accident.

The measures depend on the estimated exposure; that is, the amount of radioactivity released into the atmosphere and the meteorological conditions, for example wind and rain. The measures may provide for evacuation of the population found within a given distance from the plant; confinement to the home, office, some safe building, or a shelter designed to decrease exposure; and the distribution and administration of iodine tablets to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer.

If necessary, the health or national authorities can prohibit or limit the consumption of produce and dairy products produced near the plant in order to reduce exposure.


What are potassium iodide tablets?

Potassium iodide tables contain stable (that is, nonradioactive) iodine. The thyroid gland needs iodine to produce thyroid hormones. The presence of stable iodine in appropriate quantities in the body impedes the absorption of radioactive iodine and therefore reduces the risk of thyroid cancer, which can result from exposure to the radioactive form.

However, potassium iodide tablets are not antidotes to radiation. They do not protect against external radiation or against radioactive substances other than iodine. They can cause complications in certain people--for example, individuals suffering from kidney disorders--which is why potassium iodide tablets should only be administered if the public health authorities expressly recommend it.

When and why is necessary it to take potassium iodide?

Potassium iodide should only be taken if recommended by the authorities who coordinate the contingency operation, in which people from the health sector should be involved. If you are at risk for radioactive exposure, or exposure to radioactive iodine, potassium iodide tablets can be prescribed to prevent the radioactive form of iodine from accumulating in the thyroid gland. When this is done before or shortly after exposure, it can reduce the long-term risk of thyroid cancer.

Can pregnant women take potassium iodide tablets?

Yes, according to the health authorities, most pregnant women can take potassium iodide tablets. Potassium iodide will pass through the placenta and protect the thyroid of both fetus and mother.

Should I take iodized salt to protect myself from radiation?

No, you should not consume iodized salt to protect yourself from radiation. Consuming large amounts of iodized salt to increase the amount of stable iodine in the body is dangerous.

Increasing daily consumption of iodized salt does even more harm. The main ingredient in this product is sodium chloride, which is linked with hypertension and other diseases. On the other hand, the iodine content is too low to prevent the absorption of radioactive iodine.

Sodium chloride is very toxic in large quantities; repeated consumption of even such small amounts as a teaspoonful over a short period can result in poisoning.

Can I take other forms of iodine?

No. You should not take other products that contain iodine aside from the medicines recommended by the health authorities. Iodine is found in many domestic and industrial products. For example, it can be found it in disinfectants, antiseptics, and water disinfectant solutions. These products should not be taken in place of potassium iodide tablets, since they contain other ingredients that may be dangerous if ingested.