Experts Sound Off: How Will Radiation Burns Affect Japan Plant Workers?

Medical experts sound off on the effects of radiation injuries.

ByLARA SALAHI, ABC News Medical Unit
March 24, 2011, 5:06 PM

March 24, 2011— -- Three Japanese ground workers laboring to contain the nuclear reactors in Fukushima were rushed to the hospital with radiation burns after irradiated water that escaped from the plant's number 3 reactor seeped through the workers' protective gear.

Following reports of the workers' injuries, nearly a dozen experts on radiation exposure responded to a few questions by the ABC News' Medical Unit on the growing elements of radiation danger to workers on the ground in Fukushima.

Physical burns may not be the only hazard for the workers who came in contact with contaminated water, experts said.

"The concern is if we can determine the whole body [radiation] dose to the workers based upon the skin injuries," said Dr. William Blackstock, chair of radiation oncology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Knowing the whole body dose can help the medical staff anticipate and hopefully manage [potential effects of the radiation]."

Some reports of radiation injuries may not necessarily be radiation burns, according to Dr. Roger Macklis, chair of the department of radiation oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. Some of the burns experienced by some of the workers may be conventional heat burns that have been exposed to low levels of radiation, Macklis said.

Experts said a radiation burn is treated just the same as a conventional burn.

"The burns should be covered by a clean, dry dressing as soon as possible to prevent infection," said Dr. Itzhak Brook, professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

But in radiation burn cases, many doctors are not only treating the burns. Radiation poisoning is the added condition that could make burns harder to treat.

"Healing a radiation skin burn is much more difficult if the patient's bone marrow is failing," said Blackstock.

While it's unclear the extent of the workers' burns, Brook said, deeper radiation burns are harder to treat and are more prone to infection.

For example, Gamma radiation is considered a deeper form of radiation that is more difficult to treat.

"It can penetrate deeply into the body and deliver a radiation dose to cells deep within the body," said Dr. Robert Emery, executive director of environmental health and safety at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

However, one of the most common forms of radiation burns are acute surface area burns that are highly treatable, said Dr. Henry Royal, former co-team leader of the health effects section of the IAEA's International Chernobyl Project and member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments.

"Very high doses can result in ulcerations of the skin. These injuries are usually not apparent until a few weeks after the exposure," said Royal .

Maintaining higher than normal levels of radiation in the body can lead to acute radiation syndrome (ARS). Symptoms of ARS include swelling, itching, and nausea. If left untreated, ARS could cause internal bleeding.

The quicker the onset of symptoms, the higher the radiation dose, Emery said.

Immediate treatment might help curb the potential longer term effects. It's unclear what other radiation effects some workers may experience, but Brook said, time will tell.

"It may develop within 24 to 72 hours if they got more radiation than estimated," he said.

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