Our sympathies and prayers go out to the Japanese people. The horrific events unfolding over the last couple of weeks must be a wake-up call to the nuclear vulnerabilities in this country and the world that a rare but predictable natural disaster in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant has the potential to change life as we know it.
A complete meltdown of such a plant has the destructive energy of 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. There is no such thing as a "safe level" of radiation exposure, whether from a nuclear power plant accident or an act of terrorism.
While we are all at risk from a release of ionizing radiation, children are at the greatest risk for serious health effects from exposure. Studies have confirmed the disproportionate health consequences following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear testing on Bikini Island and the meltdown at Chernobyl.
Children have a greater body surface-area-to-weight ratio than adults, and skin that is softer and more permeable, making kids more vulnerable to both thermal and radiation burns. A child's eyes are more sensitive to radiation damage, leading to possible blindness.
Radiation causes damage to chromosomes that may lead to changes in future generations. Children have a higher breathing rate than adults, and they are positioned lower to the ground, both making them more likely to inhale radioactive particles.
Exposure to radiation during pregnancy is known to cause severe disabilities in infants. Radioactive iodine is transmitted to human breast milk, contaminating this valuable source of nutrition to infants.
Cow milk, a staple in the diet of most children, can be quickly contaminated as radioactive material settles onto grazing areas.
Moreover, the effects of radiation exposure can occur anywhere from months to years after initial exposure. Among long-term injuries to children, cancer potential is most important. History has shown an increase in childhood leukemia after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thyroid cancers in children after Chernobyl.
Dependent children involved in a radiation-related incident will be particularly vulnerable to psychological trauma, especially if compounded, like in Japan, by the unimaginable devastation from an earthquake and tsunami, with possible loss of the child's mother and/or father, home and all things familiar and safe.
From Japan, we can learn about human fragility, resilience and cooperation. We also must study how to fully prepare an emergency response to catastrophic nuclear exposure.
As pediatricians who care about the health of children and their families, we cannot overstate the importance of coordinated local and state planning for a nuclear disaster.
Schools, homes, day care centers and businesses in close proximity to any of the 104 nuclear power plants throughout the United States must acquire preparedness skills, be able to rapidly disburse potassium iodide, evacuate and shelter large populations, and offer age-appropriate medical and mental-health providers to advise and care for the unique physical, mental and developmental impact on infants and children.
To safeguard the future, we must make the protection of pregnant women, infants and children a priority during nuclear disasters.
But ultimately, to truly protect our future we must focus our efforts on improving energy conservation and efficiency while expanding the use of safe, clean renewable forms of energy to build a new energy future for the nation and world.