The Department of Health and Ageing (DOHA) and Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) has issued the following advice on exposure to radiation arising from nuclear incidents in Japan, based on available information and current assessments:
U.S. Air Force and Marine personnel look out over debris left at Sendai airport in this U.S. Air Force handout photo dated March 13, 2011.
Advice for Australians remaining in Japan on food and water precautions, the availability and use of potassium iodide tablets and on appropriate sheltering from radiation if required have been provided today by Australia's Chief Medical Officer and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
Extensive advice on these new topics of concern, together with information for people returning from Japan and for use by GPs is contained on this website and is updated regularly.
As a result of new assessments of the situation in Japan, ARPANSA and the Department of Health and Ageing recommended, as a precautionary measure, that Australians within an 80 km zone from the Fukushima nuclear power plant move out of the area.
The US had made a similar recommendation in accordance with the standard guidelines of their Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Their guidelines would require a zone of 80 km (50 miles) around the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
ARPANSA is closely following the safety issues surrounding the Fukushima Dai-ichi site and in particular the current status of the four reactor units and the spent fuel ponds at a number of the reactor units. ARPANSA notes that the Japanese Government has increased the International Nuclear and Radiological Events Scale (INES) rating for this event to INES Level 5 (an accident with wider consequences) for three of the reactor units.
The ARPANSA modelling of airborne radioactive material released from Fukushima Dai-ichi predicts that for the next 24 hours any airborne radioactive material will be pushed towards the east out to sea. There is a predicted wind shift along the east coast after this time (around mid-Tuesday), which may cause airborne radioactive material to then be pushed to the north-east, with possible landfall to the northern part of mainland Japan
Australians returning home from Japan are highly unlikely to be contaminated or exposed to significant radiation and will not require checks for radioactivity. However, if people wish to seek medical advice they should contact their local GP.
ARPANSA and the Chief Medical Officer advise that iodine tablets are only required when exposed to substantial radiation doses from radioactive iodine. There is no current need for those returning from Japan or those in Japan outside the Exclusion Zone to consider the use of potassium iodide tablets at this time.
Discussions continue with medical organisations and state and territory health authorities on these issues. Further information will continue to be provided by the Australian Government as the situation develops.
Advice to Australians remaining in Japan
The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March 2011 has damaged a number of nuclear reactors on the east coast of Japan resulting in release of radioactive contaminants to the atmosphere. The Japanese Government has imposed evacuation zones and shelter in place zones around affected reactors in Fukushima prefecture. These protective action zones may be revised by the Japanese Government as circumstances change.
What should Australians remaining in Japan do?
Australians remaining in Japan should follow any protective measures recommended by the Japanese Government. This may include evacuation or shelter in place orders.
Australians remaining in Japan should not travel into the official evacuation or shelter in place zones. As a precautionary measure, it is recommended that Australians within an 80 km radius of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant move out of the area.
ARPANSA and the Chief Medical Officer advise that iodine prophylaxis is only required when exposed to substantial radiation doses from radioactive iodine. The current situation does not require administration of iodine prophylaxis. This situation may change and Australians remaining in Japan should follow recommendations of the Japanese Government in this regard.
What are the symptoms of radiation exposure?
Radiation health effects are related to the magnitude and duration of exposure. Australians remaining in Japan may be exposed to low levels of radiation associated with contaminants released from the damaged nuclear reactors. Low level radiation exposure produces no physical symptoms. There is no specific health test available for low level radiation exposure and no medical treatment is required.
Australians in Japan may find www.mofa.go.jp/ a helpful English language website with local information.
Shelter in place (sheltering)
In the event of a significant release of radiation, Japanese public health and emergency management officials may advise people in a specified area to take shelter. This is known as "shelter in place" or "sheltering". Shelter in place involves keeping members of the population indoors, in suitable buildings, to reduce radiation exposure from airborne radioactivity and from 'ground or sky shine'. Shelter in place is not recommended for a period exceeding 48 hours as the efficacy of this measure reduces over time. Sheltering is effective until the concentrations of radionuclides within the shelter become comparable with those outside. Sheltering must be stopped when the concentrations outside begin to decline below those inside (e.g. when the source of exposure has been removed or any 'cloud' containing radioactive material has passed). The time scale during which sheltering may be useful ranges from a few hours to a couple of days. The Japanese authorities will advise when to begin and cease shelter in place arrangements.
While sheltering, people should be aware of the heating devices used in the enclosed space. Heaters and other devices that run on oil, gas, coal or wood should be avoided while sheltering due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. When sheltering in cold conditions, it is recommended that extra layers of clothing be worn or electrical heaters be used.
What to do if you are advised to take shelter:
* During the early stages of a release of radioactive material, while a radioactive plume of mixed radionuclides is passing, a large proportion of the individual radiation dose may arise from inhalation.
* Sheltering in a building can reduce the radiation dose from inhalation by a factor of 2 and external radiation doses from the passing plume can be reduced by a factor of 10 for brick or large buildings.
* Light weight or open buildings provide less protection.
* If you are advised to take shelter you should:
o Turn off the air conditioner, ventilation fans and furnace and close fireplace dampers and other air intakes.
o Close and lock all windows and doors.
o Go to the basement or other underground area if possible.
o Stay as far away from windows and doors as possible.
o Place physical barriers, such as lead, earth, concrete or stacks of books between yourself and the source of the radiation to provide shielding from gamma radiation.
* If you are outside when you are advised to shelter, remove clothing and shoes and place them in a plastic bag before entering the house. During severe weather, such as extreme cold, remove at least the outer layer of clothes before entering the home to avoid bringing radioactive material into your shelter. Leave clothing and shoes outside. Shower and wash your body with soap and water. Removing clothing can eliminate up to 90% of radioactive contamination.
* When you move to your shelter, use duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal any doors, windows, or vents for a short period of time while a radiation plume is passing over. Within a few hours, you should remove the plastic and duct tape and ventilate the room. Suffocation could occur if you keep the shelter tightly sealed for more than a few hours.
* Sheltering is not recommended for longer than 48 hours. This period may be less, depending on climatic conditions.
Advice on potassium iodide tablets
The Australian Government has sent potassium iodide tablets to the Embassy in Tokyo. Should it be required, additional supplies are available.
These tablets have been provided as a precautionary step and would be made available only when deemed medically necessary for those Australians in Japan exposed to substantial doses of radiation. At this stage, radiation levels are much lower than the levels at which potassium iodide tablets would be needed. On 20 March, Japanese authorities announced radiation levels by prefecture for 19 March, which indicated a gradual decline in radiation levels around the country.
ARPANSA and the Chief Medical Officer advise that potassium iodide tablets are only required when exposed to substantial radiation doses from radioactive iodine. There is no current need for those returning from Japan or those in Japan to consider the use of potassium iodide tablets. There is no need for any Australian to visit the Embassy requesting tablets. The circumstances in Japan are under constant review and Australians will be notified if this advice changes.
When would I be advised to take potassium iodide tablets?
In the event of a significant release of radiation containing high levels of radioactive iodine, Japanese public health and emergency management officials may advise people in a specified area to take potassium iodide.
Advice on the points of distribution and when to take Australian Government potassium iodide tablets will be given by the Australian Government. The advice will be provided by the Chief Medical Officer after consultation with the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).
Advice to take the medicine would be given when it was considered that there was a risk of exposure to a level of radioactive iodine within the body that could cause damage to the thyroid gland. In children, the level of radioactive iodine that can cause damage is lower than it is for adults. Therefore, advice may be given for children to have potassium iodide but not for adults.
The Australian Government is aware of the decision by the UK Government on 19 March, via its travel advisory that it would begin distributing iodine pills to British citizens in Tokyo, Sendai and Niigata as a contingency measure, with instructions only to take the pills when advised to do so by the British or Japanese government (stating that scientific advice was not to take the pills in the current situation).
At this stage, there is no need to distribute iodine tablets to all Australians in Japan. If necessary, tablets will be distributed based on the risks to the affected population. On 20 March potassium iodide tablets were provided to eight Australians and their dependents known to be in the Sendai area. The use of the tablets is only on approval of the Chief Medical Officer.
Do not take potassium iodide unless you are instructed
In the situation where significant exposure to radioactive iodine may occur, the benefits of potassium iodide greatly outweigh the risk of side effects. It is important, however, that people only take potassium iodide when instructed to do so and that they carefully follow dose instructions. Adverse health effects from potassium iodine are usually mild, such as an upset stomach. The medicine, however, can cause allergies and may result in thyroid problems. Adverse health events are more likely if you take more potassium iodide than recommended.
If people are asked to take the tablets they should report any side effects to their doctor. Where more than one dose is required, pregnant and breast-feeding women and babies under the age of one month should seek advice from their GP and have their thyroid function monitored by their doctor. People with known allergy to iodine should not take potassium iodide.
What to do if you are advised to take potassium iodide
Potassium iodide (KI) is a medicine which can protect the thyroid gland from harmful effects of contamination with radioactive iodine that has been inhaled or ingested from contaminated food or water. It does not protect any other part of the body, nor does it protect from other radioactive materials which people may be contaminated with at the same time.
Potassium iodide tablets must be used in conjunction with other emergency protection measures such as evacuation or sheltering.
Timely administration is essential for KI to be protective. It must be taken at least an hour before exposure or within 24 hours of exposure (the earlier after exposure the better). For a one-time exposure take one dose as soon as possible after you are advised to take it. Do not take a dose if more than 24 hours has passed since a one-time exposure. One dose provides protection for 24 hours, so for continuing exposures, take a dose every 24 hours until the danger has passed and you are advised to stop.
You will be given dose directions and instructions on how to take the medicine when you are given the medicine. If you are given Australian Government potassium iodide (KI) tablets, you will be given a printed instruction sheet.
The Australian Embassy will advise on where you can get access to supplies of potassium iodide.
Facts about potassium iodide
Potassium iodide is an iodine salt in medicine form. Iodine is an important chemical needed by the body to make thyroid hormones. Most of the iodine in our bodies comes from the food we eat. Potassium iodide is given to people who have been exposed to radioactive iodine due to a nuclear emergency to protect the thyroid gland from harm.
Potassium iodide acts to block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid gland and helps protect the gland from injury. The thyroid gland will only take in a certain amount of iodine. If harmless iodine from the potassium iodide fills the thyroid gland it blocks the uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid.
Advice to Australians returning from Japan who have concerns about possible exposure to radiation
The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March 2011 has damaged a number of nuclear reactors on the east coast of Japan resulting in release of radioactive contaminants to the atmosphere. The Japanese Government has imposed evacuation zones and shelter in place zones around affected reactors in Fukushima prefecture. The Australian Government has recommended that Australians within an 80 km radius of the damaged reactors in Fukushima move out of the area.
The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) is closely monitoring the nuclear situation in Japan. ARPANSA advises that for Australians returning from Japan there is a chance of exposure to low levels of radiation associated with releases from damaged nuclear reactors. Exposures are more probable for those who were in Fukushima prefecture or immediate surrounding areas subsequent to 11 March 2011. In addition Australians who were in the region of the recently revised exclusion zone of up to 80 km away from the reactors would have been exposed to even lower levels of radiation as they were even further away.
What to do if you are worried?
As precautionary measures people should shower, washing hair and body, and wash clothes. These simple measures should effectively remove any low level contamination which may have been present. There has been advice given in related information about circumstances where stable iodine may be required to be administered. There is no requirement for the administration of stable iodine for someone returning to Australia from Japan.
If on return to Australia you or your family are concerned about possible exposure to radiation, you should visit your local GP and let them know where in Japan you were.
What are the symptoms of radiation exposure?
Radiation health effects are related to the magnitude and duration of exposure. Australians returning from Japan may have been exposed to low levels of radiation associated with contaminants released from damaged nuclear reactors. Low level radiation exposure produces no physical symptoms. There is no specific health test available for low level radiation exposure and no medical treatment is required.
Food and Water: Food and Water in Japan and Food Imported from Japan
Food and Water in Japan: All Australians in Japan are strongly encouraged to follow the protective measures recommended by Japanese authorities in relation to food and water safety. Food Standards Australia New Zealand recommends the following more general precautions be adopted:
1. All food stored inside since sheltering was advised, such as food in the home, shops or other buildings, should be safe.
2. Foods that are well packaged (i.e. in tins, cartons or bottles including bottled water) should also be safe, even if carried outside while sheltering is advised.
3. As a precautionary measure, avoid foods that may have been outdoors in the affected areas such as fresh produce from crops grown in the fields, gardens or allotments or sold loose in outdoor markets.
4. Fish, shellfish and seaweed products from affected areas should also be avoided.
5. Avoid milk that comes from an affected area. Imported milk products from countries outside Japan should be safe.
6. Bottled water and tap water in areas not affected by radioactive contamination, is safe to drink. Water sourced within areas that have been contaminated by airborne radioactivity may contain increased levels of radioactivity. Australians should follow the health warnings provided by the Japanese Government on the safety of water within specific areas.
7. On 24 March the Tokyo Metropolitan Government lifted its restrictions for infants up to 12 months old in Tokyo (covering the 23 wards of central Tokyo, Musashino City, Machida City, Tama City, Inagi City, and Mitaka City) drinking tap water. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government advised that radiation levels from radioactive iodine at the water purification plant has dropped below the safety limits for infants.
8. Australians remaining in Japan should follow any protective measures recommended by the Japanese Government.
Food Imported from Japan:
In its most recent assessment of the situation in Japan, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has noted that the Japanese Government has moved to place new restrictions on certain foods sourced from areas of Japan where radiation contamination has occurred. As a precautionary measure, and consistent with approaches internationally, FSANZ requested the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) institute a Holding Order for all foods of interest originating from the Japanese prefectures of Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki and Tochigi. Foods of interest in this context are milk and milk products, fresh fruit and vegetables, seaweed and seafood (fresh and frozen).
Advice to date has indicated that the risk currently posed by Japanese foods imported into Australia is neglible as Australia does not import fresh produce or milk products from Japan. In fact, Australia imports very little food from Japan. Imports are limited to a small range of specialty products, for example seaweed-based products, sauces etc.
However, consistent with approaches internationally and as a precautionary measure the Australian Government has asked FSANZ to liaise with other Australian regulators, such as ARPANSA, the AQIS and Customs, to ensure a coordinated approach to managing any potential risks to the Australian food supply chain and the monitoring of any foodstuffs from the affected prefectures entering Australia.
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