You are here: MEDICA Portal. MEDICA Magazine. Interviews. Interviews Concerning Health Politics. Interviews.
Radiation Sickness: "There is no specific treatment"
© panthermedia.net/Darius Turek
Many years ago in Chernobyl, now Fukushima (Japan) - when it comes to nuclear accidents, human lives are in danger. Not only in the moment of the accident, but for many years later. Because the disease-causing rays have a life-long effect on our health and can be the cause of cancer even in the following generation.
What are the consequences of ionized radiation and what have affected people to expect? MEDICA.de spoke with Doctor Wolfgang Stück of the German “Ökologischer Ärztebund” (Ecological Medical Association).
MEDICA.de: Doctor Stück, what is being summarized under the header radiation sickness?
Wolfgang Stück: One differentiates between acute radiation sickness and chronic radiation injury due to long-term exposure at low dose radiation levels. Very high levels of radiation such as those that occurred through atomic bomb explosions or civilian nuclear accidents, immediately or within weeks lead to severe diseases or death – there is no specific treatment. The main symptoms include especially exsanguination and death due to uncontrollable infectious diseases.
MEDICA.de: In Sweden, you have already attended to people who were sick from radiation. How did this come to be?
Stück: The Swedish government flew in severely radioactively contaminated Soviet firemen, liquidators (clean-up workers) and soldiers from Chernobyl to Stockholm to see how and whether these severely ill people can be helped. They wanted to gain insight on how the population could be helped during a nuclear accident. I was in Sweden as a member of an international group of physicians who were supposed to investigate treatment options for these radiation victims at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. One member of this group of physicians was the American pioneer in bone marrow transplants, Professor Robert Gale.
Unfortunately, the result of our investigation was: There is no medical cure for radiation victims. This holds true and is unchanged until this day. That was also obvious when the former Russian KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by radioactive polonium in 2006. Despite a maximum of medical care in a specialist hospital in London, he succumbed to a slow death by radiation.
MEDICA.de: Is there a way to give an accurate statement on what radiation dosage will cause death?
Stück: Experience shows that approximately four sieverts – this is a measuring unit of differently weighted doses of radiation – leads to death within a short amount of time and in the medium term, respectively. In shafts in Fukushima up to ten sieverts were measured. You need to know though that the radiometers stop measuring at ten sieverts, since the devices are not laid out for such extreme measuring data. Thus it could have also been 100 or more sieverts. There are no ways of protection and no protective suits for this amount of radiation; this absolutely leads to death.
MEDICA.de: What health damage can develop from low levels of radioactivity?
Stück: Compared to acute radiation sickness at high levels of radiation, there is no characteristic disease pattern for low levels. An increase of sickness occurs that can also happen otherwise, for instance in the case of cancer. What is lesser known is that it can also lead to increases of other typical diseases and injuries such as for instance cardiovascular diseases, strokes, genetic diseases, mental retardation, benign tumors, damages to the immune system and so on. The higher the radiation exposure, the higher statistically speaking is the number of diseases. That’s why injury verification for an individual is not possible. What makes this even more difficult is that there often could be many years between the radiation incident and when the disease appears. In the survivors in Hiroshima, who received a radiation dose that was under the level that triggers acute radiation disease, not until five to ten years later leukemia, particularly in children, and even 25 to 35 years later the mass of the remaining cancers started to appear.
The new supplementary radiation warning symbol; © IAEA
MEDICA.de: At what point do you consider the values to be dangerous?
Stück: There is no safe radiation dose; even the naturally occurring radioactivity is responsible in some part for cancers, disabilities and hereditary defects. The natural radioactivity is 2.4 millisieverts. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation UNSCEAR calculated that an increase of radioactive radiation by 1 millisievert leads to 12 additional cancer occurrences per 100, 000 residents per year. In Germany, yearly 630,000 people develop cancer that is to say about 335 women and 452 men per 100,000 residents. If you take this data as a basis, each year 23,040 people develop cancer just by non-influenceable, natural radioactivity. The argument that’s being put forth time and again by proponents of nuclear energy and some politicians that “after all the use of nuclear technology at most leads to an increase of radiation levels as they appear everywhere in nature and are thus completely harmless“, is nonsense in my opinion.
MEDICA.de: In view of the latest nuclear accident in March 2011 in Japan: Are we in Germany at risk by the reactor accidents in Fukushima?
Stück: The radioactive contamination in Fukushima is – so far – confined to the Northern Japanese island of Honshu and parts of the North Pacific. Luckily, Fukushima was not a major disaster like Chernobyl, where the nuclear reactor exploded and an enormous amount of embedded nuclear waste was blasted into the atmosphere. With the result that due to wind and rain, large parts of Europe remain contaminated until this day.
MEDICA.de: What do things look like if I live close to a nuclear power plant? Can I count on special health hazards?
Stück: Based on the Atomic Energy Act, nuclear power plants may emit a small amount of radioactivity. The reactor building has to for example be deaerated in certain intervals, and in doing so radioactive substances are being released. Nuclear power plants may emit 30 millisieverts per year through this mechanism.
One has to say that the contamination in the surroundings of nuclear power plants is comparatively low. Nevertheless, studies from England and other countries have showed early on that there is an increased rate of leukemia in children that live in close proximity to a nuclear power plant. Childhood leukemia is very rare, but here the rate of leukemia in children under the age of five is increased by 118 percent. This was identified by the German KiKK-study in 2007, which was also done in collaboration with the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection. So the closer the children live to the nuclear power plant, the higher the rate of leukemia.
MEDICA.de: What makes radioactivity so particularly dangerous compared to other toxic substances?
Stück: Once it has been released into the world, it can no longer be retrieved by human beings. Almost all of the radioactive elements produced by humans or that were brought into the biosphere, radiate for many decades up to many millenniums and thus poison the world of future generations. The death zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima will remain uninhabitable for centuries or millenniums. This is irresponsible. That’s why I am in favor of abandoning nuclear energy as quickly as possible. After all, by now there are more environmentally friendly alternatives to generate energy that are ready for mass production.
(Translated by Elena O'Meara)