Upgrading the Disaster

Officials rank Fukushima's hazards on par with Chernobyl's

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Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters

It's the latest evidence that the health and environmental effects of the Fukushima nuclear-power-plant accident will be devastating and long-lasting. After a review of data on the amount of radiation leaked by the damaged plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Japanese nuclear-safety officials raised their assessment of the crisis to Level 7, the highest ranking on an international scale of nuclear-incident severity--which puts the Fukushima disaster on par with the Chernobyl explosion in 1986.

The new rating reflects the fact that officials anticipate widespread effects of radioactive contamination not only in Japan but possibly also in nearby countries. It takes into account the long-term health consequences of exposure to radioactive material, including increased rates of thyroid cancer, as well as the physical damage to the plant buildings and predictions of how long radioactive contaminants will linger in the soil and water near the nuclear facility. The Japanese government continues to expand the original 12-mile (19 km) evacuation zone around Fukushima and has barred surrounding communities from planting rice and vegetable crops out of fear the harvest could be contaminated by radioactive soil.

Even so, the country's nuclear officials were quick to note that the peak release of radiation has long passed. Although the disabled reactors continue to emit radioactive iodine and cesium, the rate has dropped 90% since the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and safety officials said they do not expect a new surge of radiation from the plant. Despite the new assessment, the Fukushima accident has released about 10% as much radioactive material as Chernobyl did and so far poses fewer health risks.

The crisis, however, is ongoing. Workers are still trying to restore reactor cooling systems even as aftershocks hamper their efforts. If they fail, the concerns--and risks--will only grow.

Sources: Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of Japan; National Wildlife Federation; Experimental Biology 2011 meeting; J. of the National Cancer Inst.

DEPRESSION

A Pill to Prevent Postpartum?

Doctors already recommend that pregnant women take fish-oil supplements, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, to boost their babies' cognitive and physical development in the womb. It turns out these beneficial fats may also help new moms fight postpartum depression.

Researchers report that pregnant women who took fish oil--which has been shown to increase mood-lifting brain chemicals--had fewer depressive symptoms in the six months after they gave birth than women who took a placebo. Which makes the supplements a smart way for Mom to help herself and Baby too.