Friday, September 09, 2005

Chernobyl's Reduced Impact

So far 56 deaths have been directly attributed to the accident, 47 among emergency workers and 9 among young children who developed thyroid cancer after drinking contaminated milk.

In the long run, the experts predict, some 4,000 emergency workers and residents of the most contaminated areas may die from radiation-induced cancer. That qualifies Chernobyl as a very serious accident but not a catastrophe.

The greatest harm was inflicted on emergency workers; some succumbed quickly to acute radiation sickness and show a slight rise in leukemia. This suggests that proper equipment for such workers can greatly mitigate the health damage after an accident. In the wider region, the most concrete damage has been thyroid cancer, which has afflicted some 4,000 children. Some 99 percent were treated successfully, and 9 died.

Instead, the greatest public health hazard has been mental. People from the region are anxious and fatalistic, based on a greatly exaggerated view of the risks they face. The result can be drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, and an inability to function. Disaster coordinators will clearly have to factor mental health effects into their planning.
If I understand this correctly, the fear of nuclear radiation caused more health issues than the radiation itself. So, this is just like terrorism in that the event itself doesn't do the damage, it is the fear that does the damage. And the only way to fight that is with good information.

My fear is that a dirty bomb goes off some where. I think the impact of the public's fear will be much worse than the actual threat it poses. The only way to combat that is for public officials to get out there now, before the attack and tell people about it. And I think the best way to do it is to compare it with risk of smoking or something else people understand. Radiation is scary because you can't see it and people really don't know how bad it is for them.

So Dick Cheney, why don't you get out there and spread the word about the risks due to radiation? After scaring the bejesus out of us, you are the man to give us the straight talk on this.

Via New York Times

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