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Public Health Concerns in the Aftermath of the Japanese Earthquake, Tsunami and the Fukushima Reactor Breach

The March/April print and online
editions of PA TIMES featured several articles on the aftermath of the
devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. Contact
Christine McCrehin, [email protected], to find out how to receive the
paper.See the Related Articles box for links to read more of the featured articles.

K. Y. Williams, David Milen, Traci Foster, Matthew Lloyd Collins, and Mark Gordon

The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami devastated the island nation of Japan claiming over 10,000 lives and leaving over 17,000 missing. This catastrophic event severely damaged the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant resulting in the release of radioactive material. In the aftermath of both the earthquake and tsunami, this radioactive contamination has added to the public health concerns of the island nation.

During the aftermath of a catastrophe, many survivors of the initial disaster are either killed, maimed, or severely injured due to environmental and/or public health hazards. Citizens must be aware of both environmental and/or public health hazards to ensure individual as well as community wellness post-disaster. In particular, citizens should be cognizant of environmental concerns, community health concerns, general public health concerns and personal health concerns as they relate to the hazards caused by the earthquake, tsunami and radioactive contamination.

Environmental Concerns
Individuals affected by this disaster should be most concerned with hazards posed by their immediate surroundings. Many environmental hazards impact citizens such as gas leaks, floodwaters, downed power lines, wet electrical outlets, gasoline/oil spills, and hazardous debris. Damaged and destroyed structures cause an increase in hazardous conditions. These conditions often result in additional post-disaster loss of life and injury. For example, individuals can be electrocuted if they come in contact with live downed power lines or live electrical outlets. Additionally, Japan is experiencing winter and therefore gas for heating homes is being heavily utilized. Citizens should be cognizant of the hazards presented by damaged gas lines including both fire and explosion. By being aware of such hazards and taking the requisite safety precautions for personal protection, many post-disaster deaths and injuries can be avoided.

Community Health Concerns
Communication including conventional telephone, internet, and fax service within the affected regions is limited. Therefore, there may be little or very intermittent means of conventional communication in the event of a medical emergency. Given this communication breakdown, emergency response personnel and first responders will not be able to aid victims expeditiously. Citizens should make every effort to know where the first responders and medical personnel are located. Citizens may have to transport sick and injured members of their community to receive medical attention. Receiving immediate medical attention in a short time frame can mean the difference between life and death. Due to the reduced number of medical personnel and other resources, a large strain will be imposed on the medical system and the amount of medication available to treat individuals will be limited. Therefore, avoiding additional injury is paramount to one’s survival in the aftermath of such a disaster.

General Public Health Concerns
Food and water are in short supply within the affected areas as well as in some of the unaffected areas. In addition, there are legitimate as well as media-driven fears of radioactive contamination of food, water, dairy products (such as milk, cheese, and eggs), and freshly grown vegetables (i.e., spinach). Being aware of contaminated food is important during the recovery phase of this disaster. The Japanese government has policies and protocols in place for handling, treating, and disposing of food in affected areas and it is advisable to heed governmental agency suggestions and warnings.

Personal Health Concerns
Floodwaters in the surrounding areas are contaminated with bacteria and microorganisms, oil/gas, debris, dirt, and bio-hazardous waste. Individuals are advised not to drink the water or bathe in the floodwater due to the risk of contamination and illness. Another important hazard of this disaster is the number of deceased individuals that have not been located and buried properly. In such a disaster with widespread casualties, it is important to manage the recovery of the human bodies by starting with basic identification, proper storage, and proper disposal of the human remains. In addition, it is important to bury the human remains away from sources of drinking water because decomposition can contaminate the water and lead to other biohazards. Furthermore, it is important to bury the human bodies deeply underground (generally five feet or more) to prevent rain or flood waters from re-exposing the human remains to the environment.

In addition to the effects of the tsunami, there is the added public health concern of radioactive contamination due to the nuclear reactor breach. Due to the fact that radiation can be deposited on an object, can be ingested, or inhaled by an individual, it is necessary for citizens to wear protective gear when working in radioactive areas. Radiation can be released into the water. It can also be found on the surfaces of many different objects as well as in the soil. Radiation can lead to the contamination of plants, buildings, people, and animals. Radioactive contamination can be deadly to human beings depending on the duration and amount of exposure. It is impossible to feel, smell, or taste radiation. Therefore, it is always best to take steps to avoid radioactive contamination. Citizens should be warned to stay in areas designated as safe zones as directed by local law enforcement or public health officials. If an individual suspects that he or she may have been exposed to radioactive materials, he or she will need to take steps to reduce the length of time of exposure and to seek treatment with potassium iodide if necessary. If an individual suspects that he or she has been exposed to radiation, he or she should remove all clothing immediately and place the clothing in a plastic bag. One should wash all exposed areas of the body using soap and lukewarm water and try to ensure that he or she does not re-enter exposed or contaminated radioactive areas. Additionally, individuals should cover any cuts and abrasions to avoid infection by bacteria or microbes.

During the aftermath of this disaster, citizens should be aware of many public health hazards including environmental concerns, community health concerns, general public health concerns, and personal health concerns as they relate to the earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak contamination. Heeding the advice of governmental agencies as well as being individually cognizant of hazards will help members of the citizenry survive in the aftermath of this catastrophic disaster.

In the affected areas of Japan, post-disaster survival will be contingent upon remaining uninjured and uncontaminated by radiation. Individual citizens must work collectively to ensure that members of their communities survive the post-disaster response and recovery stages of the disaster unscathed. In particular, citizens should communicate with other citizens in the affected areas on a daily basis to inform one another of the locations of clean water, food, housing fit for human habitation and free of radiation, and medical facilities. Post-disaster collective action and information dissemination will help ensure collective survival.

K. Y. Williams is a faculty member at Walden University. ASPA?member David Milen is a faculty member at Walden University. Traci Foster is a nurse at Franciscan Alliance. ASPA?member Matthew Lloyd Collins, is MPA Program director at Walden University. Mark Gordon is associate dean at the Walden University School of Public Policy and Administration. All may be reached through Matthew Collins. Email: [email protected]

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