The Japanese Disaster, Radiation & Pregnancy: FAQ
In light of the nuclear plant crisis in Japan in 2014, OTIS & its affiliates have received a number of calls from concerned women, worried about the potential for radiation exposure in North America. We enlisted the help of Robert L. Brent, MD, PhD, D.Sc, a distinguished professor of pediatrics, pathology and radiology at Jefferson Medical College to address some frequently asked questions. In addition, Dr. Brent is head of the clinical and experimental teratology lab at the DuPont Hospital For Children in Wilmington, Delaware. He is renowned for his expertise in radiation exposures in pregnancy. Sonia Alvarado, senior teratogen information specialist at OTIS’ California affiliate, the CTIS Pregnancy Health Information Line, also contributed to this article.
1) Q. In earthquake-prone California, many residents worry that a nuclear disaster is inevitable at such nuclear plants as San Onofre, located near Los Angeles and San Diego. If the same problems that are occurring at Japan’s nuclear plants were to happen at a plant in the United States, would pregnant
women in nearby cities be affected?
- This is extremely unlikely, said Dr. Brent.
2) Q. It’s been reported that fires are continuing to break out at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Should pregnant women traveling and flying near Japan be concerned?
- Nuclear power plants do not explode like an atomic bomb. They do not have that potential, so, no, they shouldn’t be concerned.
3) Q. Since the nuclear plant crisis in Japan, United States health officials are reporting that sales of potassium iodide, a pill that can help prevent thyroid cancer due to radioactive iodine exposure, have spiked in California and Western Canada. Should people, particularly pregnant women and children, along the Western Coast of the U.S. and Canada be concerned about potential radiation exposure from Japan?
- You take potassium iodide if you are exposed to I-131 from the reactor. I-131 is only one particular radionuclide, of which we will not be receiving significant amounts. Taking potassium iodide would only help protect one organ, the thyroid.
4) Q. Is taking a supplement, like seaweed, that contains iodine or other products claiming to aid in diluting radiation exposure recommended at this time?
- “Not at this time,” said Alvarado. “Some of these products are not even regulated. They are sold as ‘supplements’ and, therefore, are not regulated in the same manner as prescription medications,” she explained. The doses and absorption are not really known. This poses a concern, not just for pregnant women, but for the general public. In the case of pregnant women, the product could contain a substance that could be harmful, she added. In addition, the California Department of Public Health commented on the risks regarding taking potassium iodide. “We urge Californians to not take potassium iodide as a precautionary measure. It is not necessary given the current circumstances in Japan, it can present a danger to people with allergies to iodine, shellfish or who have thyroid problems, and taken inappropriately it can have serious side effects including abnormal heart rhythms, nausea, vomiting, electrolyte abnormalities and bleeding,” said Dr. Howard Backer, interim director of the CDPH and Mike Dayton, acting secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency, in a joint statement.
5) Q. The 25th anniversary of Chernobyl is coming up on April 26th. What were some of the effects from radiation fallout on the fetus’ of pregnant women exposed to the disaster?
- Chernobyl was a much different problem, according to Dr. Brent. A boiler exploded because of mismanagement. It destroyed the reactor and spread radioactive material in the region around the plant. “There was no increase in birth defects. However, the government at the time encouraged pregnant women to abort their pregnancies, which was probably not necessary,” he added.
6) Q. What are the effects of excessive radiation exposure during pregnancy?
- Again, this wouldn’t be a concern with lower levels of radiation, reiterated Dr. Brent. “This would only be a concern with high levels similar to what was seen during Nagasaki & Hiroshima,” explained Alvarado. “In those extreme cases, we saw termination of pregnancies, mental retardation and other birth defects,” she added.
7) Q. If women are concerned, what are the best ways they can be proactive and protect themselves from radiation exposure (in general) during pregnancy?
- This should not be a concern regardless of the Japanese situation, according to Dr. Brent. People are exposed to low levels of radiation everyday and, again, it would take a much greater disaster to have any effect on people in North America. “It is advisable to stop reading the misinformation in the media,” he said.
“You don’t want to make medical decisions based on what you see on t.v.”, added Alvarado. If the need arises, the CDC will issue a recommendation about treatment guidelines and high-risk groups. “Stay tuned to medically-based resources, such as OTIS and your doctor, for any updates.” If you have any questions, please call OTIS counselors at 866-626-OTIS (6847).