"One of the things after Chernobyl, you saw massive numbers of cancers in children. The radioactive iodine got into the grass, the cows ate the grass, it got into the milk," said Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News chief medical editor.
In addition to dozens exposed to low-dose radiation, three plant workers suffered from acute radiation sickness, the New York Times reported.
"When people receive a very high dose of radiation to the total body, like the workers did, they develop nausea, vomiting and diarrhea," said Dr. Ritsuko Komaki, professor of radiation oncology at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Komaki, a native of Hiroshima, was en route to Tokyo for a scientific meeting when the earthquake hit. Her plane was rerouted from Narita airport to Nagoya.
"I've never seen such a disaster in my life," said Komaki, who was 2 years old when the atomic bomb hit, ultimately killing a dozen of her relatives in Hiroshima. Komaki was moved to become an oncologist because of her childhood friend Sadako Sasaki, who died from leukemia at age 12.
Radiation affects the body's cells by damaging DNA inside the nucleus. Because DNA is copied each time a cell divides, cells that divide frequently like those that line the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, as well as the infection-fighting white blood cells of the immune system produced in the bone marrow are most affected.
"After a few days, they may have nosebleeds and infections and become anemic," Komaki said. "They usually recover, but sometimes people die from that."
Prussian blue, a dye that binds to radioactive cesium and thallium, can speed the elimination of radiactive particles from the body and reduce the amount of radiation absorbed by cells. Potassium iodide will also help protect the thyroid from acute exposure to high levels of radioactive iodine.
While the immune system is down, high-dose antibiotics can help stave off infection. And if white blood cell levels don't climb back to normal levels, Neupagen -- a drug often used during chemotherapy -- can help boost white cell production by the bone marrow.
Red blood cells live longer than their white counterparts, so their level drops later, causing anemia. This can be treated using Procrit -- a drug similar to that used by Lance Armstrong during his recovery from prostate cancer.
Komaki's grandmother was exposed to high dose radiation at age 45 when the bomb hit Hiroshima. She had bone marrow suppression, gastrointestinal toxicity and lost her hair. Later, she developed anemia, osteoporosis, thyroid dysfunction and heart disease, but never cancer. She died at age 72.
"If the workers survive, they'll have long-term health concerns," Komaki said.