Category Archives: Health

Possible Risks From Cellphones

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that it might.

After a group of scientists from 14 countries, including the United States, analyzed peer-reviewed studies on cellphones, the team announced Tuesday that there was enough evidence to categorize personal exposure as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

This puts cellphones in the same category as lead and auto exhaust. The WHO report noted that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the radiation from cellphones is linked to cancer, but enough to alert consumers to a possible connection.

Dr. Michael Schulder, vice chairman of neurosurgery and director of the brain tumor institute at North Shore Long Island Jewish School of Medicine in Hempstead, N.Y., said the category into which WHO is putting cellphones is one that asserts there may be a concern. “That’s fairly weak as a concern goes,” he addded.

According to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates radiation from cellphones, “there is no scientific evidence to date that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other health effects, including headaches, dizziness or memory loss.”

But, Schulder said, “commonsense would tell you that since a cellphone is a microwave generator and emits radiation, it has the potential to alter DNA. And it should be used in moderation.”

Proving a causal relation between cellphone use and brain tumors is very hard to do, Schulder added. “It [would] take following many patients over many years to try to draw a connection,” he said. “Even if a connection exists, it will be very hard to prove.”

That’s partly because the radiation emitted by cellphone includes very low level microwave radiation, a type of non-ionizing radiation which is absorbed near the skin. It’s not ionizing radiation such as that emitted by an X-ray or CT scan. So-called ionizing radiation — a known cause of cancer — has enough energy to break down chemical bonds by knocking electrons off atoms or molecules (thus “ionizing” them and making them unstable).

However, to be on the safe side, Schulder recommends not speaking for long periods with the phone held to the ear. In addition, he suggests using an earpiece or speaker whenever possible. Both will keep the phone away from your head, he pointed out.

“If you use these methods, then any risk of brain tumor formation from the phone will be essentially eliminated,” Schulder said.

Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, added: “Given that the evidence remains uncertain, it is up to each individual to determine what changes they wish to make, if any, after weighing the potential benefits and risks of using a cellphone.”

If some feel the potential risk outweighs the benefit, they can take actions, including limiting cellphone use or using a headset, he said. “Limiting use among children also seems reasonable in light of this uncertainty,” Brawley said.

“On the other hand,” Brawley said, “if someone is of the opinion that the absence of strong scientific evidence on the harms of cellphone use is reassuring, they may take different actions, and it would be hard to criticize that,” he said.

Brawley also noted that many common exposures — even coffee drinking — are classified by WHO as potentially concerning.

How does your navel compare

Talk about navel-gazing: Since February, a group of scientists at North Carolina State University has been studying the germs that inhabit our belly buttons as part of a study called the Belly Button Biodiversity project.

Sounds like an odd research project, but the belly button is the “ideal location” to study germs, says Jiri Hulcr, PhD, a postdoctoral research assistant who is heading the project.

“We’re trying to educate the public about the role bacteria play in our world,” says Dr. Hulcr. “Bacteria are always present on our skin and in our bodies. In fact, there are many, many more bacterial cells on and in our bodies than actual human cells.” (Each person carries about 100 trillion microbes; the human body contains about 10 trillion cells).

Unlike such body parts as the nose or armpits, the navel doesn’t secrete anything. Also, since most people tend to ignore their belly buttons — after all, you don’t scrub or exfoliate it like you do your face — navel bacteria tend to be untouched. “Believe it or not, the belly button serves as a good representation of the types of bacteria found on the body,” Hulcr says.

Good Germs and Bad Germs

The scientists so far have collected nearly 500 samples from belly buttons on cotton swabs, and posted magnified images of each person’s microbes on their Wildlife of Your Body Web site. You don’t need to be a biologist to notice that the cultures vary greatly from person to person.

So what types of bacteria inhabit our belly buttons? “All kinds!” says Hulcr, although his team has mostly found two common skin bacteria, Streptococcus and Staphylococcus, which he says are, for the most part, “friendly.”

“We absolutely need bacteria in order to survive,” he says. “It’s like asking an animal who lives in a forest if he needs the trees. The presence of bacteria is not harmful — it’s only under certain conditions when these bacteria can be potentially unhealthy, like if someone has lowered immunity or a skin injury, like a sunburn.”

The takeaway: Don’t be freaked out by your belly button germs.

More Belly Button Facts

We asked Hulcr and other experts to tell us everything you never knew about your navel. Here, the top seven fascinating finds:

  1. Innies dominate. Hulcr’s team asked study participants whether they had “innies” or “outies.” Only 4 percent of those studied said they had outie-shaped belly buttons.
  2. You can’t control whether you get an innie or outie. Technically considered a scar, belly buttons mark the connection of a mother’s umbilical cord to her fetus in the womb. “The cord serves as the unborn baby’s lifeline, providing her with vital food and oxygen and removing waste products like carbon dioxide,” says Karen Marie Jaffe, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist affiliated with the University Hospitals of Cleveland. The cord is clamped immediately after birth and the remnant eventually falls off to unveil the belly button.The ultimate shape of the belly button depends on a number of factors, according to Indianapolis plastic surgeon Barry Eppley, MD, including how the scar attaches to underlying muscles, the looseness of surrounding skin, the fat under the skin, and how flat or protruding your belly is. “Belly buttons vary greatly in their size and shape,” he says on his blog, Explore Plastic Surgery.
  3. Your belly button shape can change — under one special circumstance, pregnancy. “The expansion of the abdomen can cause some “innie” belly buttons to pop out and become outies, but most often, there is not much change in the structure itself,” says Dr. Jaffe. And after birth, the belly button often retracts to its former shape.

A Health Emergency Fund

Even with good health insurance, a health emergency or a prolonged illness can be a financial disaster. Health insurance deductibles, co-payments, emergency room costs, and other costs of illness can add up in a hurry.

A health savings account (HSA) is one way you can put aside tax-free money for a health emergency. HSAs were established in 2003. If you are covered by a type of insurance known as a high-deductible insurance plan, you can make tax-deductible contributions to an HSA. Your employer may also make tax-deductible contributions.

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“An HSA account is very different from having a general emergency fund account,” says Joseph J. Porco, managing member of the Financial Security Group, LLC, in Newtown, Conn. “An emergency fund is about more than just out-of-pocket medical expenses. If possible, it’s a good idea to have both.”

How Much of an Emergency Fund Do You Need?

For an older adult, a health emergency might result in the need for long-term care, possibly for the rest of the senior’s life. For a young adult supporting a family, a medical emergency might be much more than just the cost of illness. Your health emergency could cause a disability that results in loss of income over an extended period. That means you should save enough to cover all your expenses.

“Most advisers would say you should have enough emergency funds saved to cover your family expenses for three to six months. I would recommend trying to put enough aside to cover all your expenses, not just health expenses, for 6 to 12 months,” says Porco.

How much you need for a health emergency and how much you can actually put into an emergency fund will depend on your family size, your income, your health status, and your age. But your first step is to understand your health insurance situation.

“The best way to start is to sit down with a financial adviser and figure out what your insurance actually covers and what it doesn’t cover. What are your insurance limits? What kind of medical bills might arise that you would be responsible for? Get some expert advice on how best to cover your actual needs,” advises Porco.

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What Insurance May Not Cover

How much insurance companies actually pay for accidents, cancer treatment, or surgery depends on what kind of insurance you have, but there are usually limits. Here are some facts to consider:

  • Cost of illness. Most insurance companies have a cap on how much they will pay for a long-term illness. A recent survey found that 10 percent of people with cancer have hit their lifetime cap and are no longer covered by insurance. Looking forward, however, the new health care reform law will eliminate caps on lifetime insurance by 2014.
  • Emergency room cost. If you have an accident that requires emergency treatment and you end up in an emergency room outside your insurance network, you may not be covered. One study found that HMOs in California denied one out of every six claims for emergency room costs.
  • Surgical coverage. You may be surprised at what your insurance company considers non-covered surgery. There can be a big gray area between covered “reconstructive” surgery and uncovered “cosmetic” surgery. Even when surgery is covered, your deductible may be $500 or more, and you may still be responsible for up to 25 percent or more of surgical costs, depending on the specifics of your plan.

NFL players is a habit that starts in the locker room

Retired National Football League players who abused opioid painkillers while active were most likely to use and abuse the same drugs after leaving the sport, the results of a telephone survey and analysis found.

The survey found more than half of the retired NFL players interviewed used opioid painkillers during their career. Of those, 71 percent reported misusing the drugs while playing, and 15 percent said they still abuse the prescription medication, Dr. Linda B. Cottler, of Washington University School of Medicine, and colleagues reported online in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

The former broadcaster and NY Giants great, Frank Gifford, said, “pro football is like nuclear warfare. There are no winners, only survivors.”

The findings from Cottler’s survey support Gifford’s assessment.

An analysis of survey data showed the rate of opioid misuse while the retired players were active in the NFL was roughly three times greater than the lifetime rate of nonmedical use of opioids in the general population of approximately the same age.

Misuse in the past 30 days in retired players was seven percent, versus less than two percent in adults 26 and older in the general population. Looking only at men in the general population, the abuse rate is about two and half percent.

The final sample included 644 former players listed in the 2009 Retired NFL Football Players Association Directory who had retired from 1979 to 2006 and had at least one phone number listed.

They completed a phone interview that discussed general demographic data, health status, pain, impairment, alcohol use, prescription opioid use, and illicit drug use. Prescription opioid use was measured for while a player was active as well as over the past 30 days. Participants were categorized into users and nonusers. Users were subcategorized as having used the drugs as prescribed, or having misused them.

Misuse was defined as taking more of the drug than prescribed, using it in a way other than prescribed, using it after a prescription ended, using it for a different reason, or using it without a prescription.

When compared against players prescribed opioids while in the NFL and with those who were non-users during their NFL careers, 17 percent of those who misused while playing used as prescribed in the past 30 days, 15 percent misused in the past 30 days, and 68 percent reported no use.

In a multivariate analysis, moderate to severe pain, undiagnosed concussions, and drinking 20 or more alcoholic drinks a week were the strongest predictors of misuse. Undiagnosed concussions were reported by 81 percent of misusers.

“This association might have been due to the fact that those who choose not to report concussions are the same players who choose not to reveal their pain to a physician, thus managing their pain on their own,” the researchers wrote. “They may believe that if they report a concussion, they will be pulled from active play.”

The researchers noted the study may have been limited by lack of detailed pain information from while a player was active, a small sample size, a more inclusive definition of misuse that included abuse of opioids a player was prescribed, and a sample that included potentially more-healthy-than-average retired footballers — the researchers noted interviews with former players not in the Retired Players Association uncovered “multiple examples of serious and heavy opioid abuse.”

They added that future research could measure number of alcoholic drinks and level of pain while active in the NFL against opioid use and abuse.

A special exercise program as well as talk therapy

Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome who participated in programs aimed at helping them overcome their symptoms — a combination of exercise and counseling — improved more than those whose treatment was intended to help them adapt to the limitations of the disease, a large randomized trial found.

Mean fatigue scores among patients treated with graded exercise therapy — a tailored program that gradually increases exercise capacity — were 3.2 points lower than scores in patients who received specialist medical care alone, according to Dr. Peter D. White, of Queen Mary University of London, and colleagues.

Furthermore, fatigue scores were lower by 3.4 points among patients receiving cognitive behavioral therapy, in which a therapist works with the patient to understand the disease, alleviate fears about activity, and help overcome obstacles to functioning.

In contrast, among patients who were treated with a program known as adaptive pacing therapy, which emphasizes energy limitations and avoidance of excess activity, scores differed by only 0.7 points the researchers reported online in The Lancet.

In a press briefing describing the study findings, co-investigator Dr. Trudie Chalder, of King’s College London, said, “We monitored safety very carefully, because we wanted to be sure we weren’t causing harm to any patients.”

“The number of serious adverse events was miniscule,” she added.

Another co-investigator, Dr. Michael Sharpe, of the University of Edinburgh, commented that a difficulty in the management of chronic fatigue syndrome has been ambiguity — about the causes and whether these treatments recommended by NICE actually are effective.

“The evidence up to now has suggested benefit, but this study gives pretty clear-cut evidence of safety and efficacy. So I hope that addresses the ambiguity,” Sharpe said during the press briefing.

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However, the investigators conceded that the beneficial effects of these treatments were only moderate, with less than one-third of participants being within normal ranges for fatigue and functioning, and only about 40 percent reporting that their overall health was much better or very much better.

“Our finding that studied treatments were only moderately effective also suggests research into more effective treatments is needed,” they wrote.

In addition, they stated that their finding of efficacy for cognitive behavioral therapy “does not imply that the condition is psychological in nature.”

The importance of cognitive behavioral therapy was further emphasized by Dr. Benjamin H. Natelson, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“This approach of encouragement of activity and discouragement of negative thinking should be a tool in every physician’s armamentarium,” he said.

“We know that cognitive behavioral therapy and gentle physical conditioning help people cope with any chronic disease — even congestive heart failure and multiple sclerosis,” Natelson said in an interview with MedPage Today.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is characterized by persisting or relapsing fatigue for at least six months that cannot be explained by any other physical or psychiatric disorder.

The fatigue is debilitating, and often is accompanied by joint and muscle pain, headaches, and tenderness of the lymph nodes.

In an editorial published with the study, Dr. Gijs Bleijenberg, and Dr. Hans Knoop, of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, explained the differences in these types of treatment for chronic fatigue.

The devices as possibly carcinogenic to humans

Cell phones may cause brain cancer, a panel of experts reporting to the World Health Organization (WHO) announced Tuesday.

After reviewing dozens of studies that explored a possible link between cancer and the ubiquitous hand-held phones, the experts classified cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” and placed them in the same category as the pesticide DDT and gasoline engine exhaust.

The panel determined that an increased risk for glioma, a malignant form of brain cancer, appears associated with wireless phone use.

Globally, it’s estimated that 5 billion cell phones are in use. “The number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children,” the International Agency for Research on Cancer said in a news release issued Tuesday.

The IARC made the announcement in Lyons, France, based on the work of 31 scientists from 14 countries. It will present its findings to the WHO, which may then issue its recommendations on safe cell phone use.

Experts said children are especially vulnerable.

“Children’s skulls and scalps are thinner. So the radiation can penetrate deeper into the brain of children and young adults. Their cells are dividing at a faster rate, so the impact of radiation can be much larger,” Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told CNN.

Until Tuesday’s announcement, the WHO had said that cell phones were safe to use.

The international experts behind Tuesday’s announcement met for eight days to review exposure data, studies of cancer in humans and in experimental animals, and other relevant data, looking for associations between cancer and the type of electromagnetic radiation found in cell phones, televisions and microwaves.

Dr. Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, said this new paper is important “first and foremost just because of the large number of users worldwide that have access now to this technology.”

Also, the scientists found notable gaps in the existing research, he said, which “suggest interesting areas of future research that will improve the evidence base which we have in order to make decisions about the usage of mobile phones in the future.”

Responding to Tuesday’s announcement, John Walls, vice president of public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group representing the wireless industry said: “Today, an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) working group in Lyon, France categorized radiofrequency fields from cellphones as possibly carcinogenic based on ‘limited evidence.’ IARC conducts numerous reviews and in the past has given the same score to, for example, pickled vegetables and coffee. This IARC classification does not mean cell phones cause cancer. Under IARC rules, limited evidence from statistical studies can be found even though bias and other data flaws may be the basis for the results.

Five ways beer boosts your brain

Beer drinkers, take note: Your favorite pint may be healthier than you realize. When it comes to good-for-you happy hour beverages, we tend to think mainly of red wine and its heart-friendly antioxidants. Recent research, however, reveals that beer may also help what ales you, from reducing the risk of osteoporosis to beating brain fog.

But before you go on a beer binge, remember that moderation is key to reap its health perks. That means no more than two 12-ounce beers a day for men and one for women. “If you overdo it, alcohol can take a toll on your health, contributing to liver damage, certain cancers, heart problems, and more,” says Andrea Giancoli, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. People with certain health conditions — including gout, high triglycerides, or breast cancer, for example — should avoid drinking beer or other alcohol because it can exacerbate those health problems, according to Joy Bauer, RD, nutrition and health expert for Everyday Health and The Today Show.

Too much alcohol can also cause weight gain. After multiple rounds, calories can add up quickly (a 12-ounce regular beer can pack up to 150 calories, while a light beer has around 100).

But for most of us, here are five healthy reasons to toast your next beer:

Beer Boost No. 1: A Stronger Skeleton

Make no bones about it: Beer in moderation may protect bone health thanks to its high silicon content. Participants who sipped one or two beers a day had greater bone mineral density than those who drank more or fewer beers, found a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Silicon helps stimulate bone-building cells, and the estrogenic effect of alcohol also has a protective quality for bones,” says study author Katherine Tucker, PhD, professor of nutritional epidemiology at Northeastern University in Boston. Which brew boasts the most silicon? Try an India Pale Ale. A 2010 University of California Davis study found that IPAs had the highest levels of the mineral.

Beer Boost No. 2: A More Powerful Ticker

A beer a day may keep heart disease away. “Alcohol raises levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol,” says Arthur Klatsky, MD, senior consultant in cardiology at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif. “It also has anti-clotting effects, which keeps blood vessels clear and healthy.” In fact, Israeli researchers found that people who drank one beer daily had lower levels of fibrinogen, a protein that helps promote blood clotting, than those who abstained from drinking. (Blood clots can cause heart attack and stroke.) Study participants drank Maccabee beer, but researchers believe that any type of beer could have similar heart-healthy effects.

Beer Boost No. 3: Healthier Kidneys

Finnish researchers found that men who drank beer had a 40 percent lower risk of kidney stones compared to those who drank other types of alcohol. The benefit may be due to beer’s high water content. Dehydration can increase the risk of kidney stones, which are little deposits of salt and minerals such as calcium that can form in your kidneys. Beer’s hops (a kind of flower that gives beer its bitter flavor and acts as a preservative) may also help prevent kidney stones by slowing the release of calcium from bones.

Help explain a decrease in deaths from heart disease

More medicine cabinets across the country are stocked with bottles of Lipitor, Zocor, and Crestor — three of the top selling cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins — than they were two decades ago, and that might be a good thing.

A quarter of Americans age 45 and older are currently taking these medications, up from just 2 percent about 20 years ago, according to the latest report on the country’s health from the National Center for Healthcare Statistics.

Several cardiologists contacted by MedPage Today and ABC News said they were unaware that such a high proportion of patients take statins, but noted the findings go hand-in-hand with recent statistics on heart disease.

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“These results … may explain some of the recent remarkable declines in hospitalizations for heart attacks and heart failure,” Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist from Yale University, said in an e-mail.

Dr. Christopher Cannon of Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said there is “no disconnect. The increased statin use is a direct cause of a lower rate of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality that has been observed over the past decade.”

Indeed, the report shows that the percentage of adults with high cholesterol has fallen over the last two decades, from 20 percent to about 15 percent. As well, deaths from heart disease have declined across all age groups, while the prevalence of heart disease itself has remained stable over the last 10 years.

Thus, the total burden of heart disease may be high, said Dr. Robert Califf of Duke University, but “the age of onset and death are significantly later.”

Still, researchers are hesitant to attribute all good outcomes in heart disease to statins alone.

“The decline in death rates comes from improved risk factor control, especially blood pressure reductions, smoking cessation and bans, improved lipids, and better care of heart attacks,” Dr. James Stein, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Wisconsin, said in an e-mail.

Dr. Krumholz added that the value of leading a healthy lifestyle shouldn’t be lost in the increased use of medication.

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Overall, heart disease is responsible for 25 percent of deaths in the U.S. — but cancer comes in at a close second, accounting for 23 percent of mortality, according to the report, which paints an overarching portrait of health in the United States.

Stroke follows at 6 percent, and chronic lower respiratory diseases and unintentional injuries are each responsible for 5 percent of deaths.

In general, however, life expectancy is getting longer, climbing over the past two decades. It’s greatest among white women, who in 2007 were expected to live 80 years, up from 77 in 1980.

And while the gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks still exists, it narrowed after 1990, the researchers said.

Obesity rates still remain high, with a third of adults and a fifth of children over age 5 classified as such — and two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese.

Paying someone else’s medical bills

What is medical identity theft? In this serious and growing problem, someone else uses your personal information to obtain medical goods or services. Medical identity theft affects consumers, health care providers, and insurance organization. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), medical identity theft accounts for about 3 percent of all identity theft, and the World Privacy Forum claims it’s the most difficult form of identity theft to correct.

When you are the victim of medical identity theft, incorrect information about diagnoses and treatments may appear on your medical records, potentially affecting your health care providers’ decisions about your care and treatment. Also, in addition to paying for treatment you didn’t receive, in some cases you might be denied treatment or coverage because of fraudulent medical or insurance information.

But there is some good news: HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations and the Identity Theft Protection Act, already in place, give you many of the tools you need to get errors corrected at your doctor’s office and with your insurance provider. Of course, like any crime, you’re better off preventing it from happening in the first place.

Spotting Medical Identity Theft

Among other signs, the FTC states that you may be a target of a potential medical identity theft or fraud if you are charged for medical services you didn’t receive. Keep a calendar to track your appointments, treatment dates, and any hospital admission and discharge dates. If the explanation of benefits from your insurance provider or Medicare isn’t exactly right, clear up the error as soon as possible.

Medical receipts, prescription drug information, health insurance forms, and any documents bearing your health care providers’ names might be all a clever thief needs to begin off-loading other medical claims to you. If you don’t need to keep medical documents, shred or burn them, and peel off labels from your prescription medications before recycling the containers.

The Japan Radiation Scare

As fires and explosions continue at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, anxiety about radiation sickness mounts, including whether the disaster will ultimately affect the United States. A new explosion Tuesday morning was the third in four days at the plant — prompting Prime Minister Naoto Kan to encourage citizens within about 20 miles of the Fukushima complex to stay indoors to avoid exposure to radiation.

Not surprisingly, Japan’s tragedy has revived frightening memories of nuclear meltdowns at Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979, but the truth is all three were very different events. And as a result of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power plants today have adopted more stringent safety measures and backup containment programs.

“It’s important to remember that when Three Mile Island melted down, there was no unplanned release of radiation, and there were no deaths from radiation,” says Jeff Geuther, nuclear reactor facility manager at Kansas State University. People tend to get frightened by threats of radiation, but so far the levels detected outside of the immediate vicinity of the Fukushima power plant are not considered dangerous.

Related: Does Your Family Have an Emergency Plan?

According to news reports, officials in Tokyo (about 150 miles south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors) said radiation there was 10 times the usual level but still posed no threat to human health.

So just how concerned about radiation poisoning should you be? Everyday Health took your top questions to experts for answers.

1. Should West Coasters worry about radiation sickness?

Residents of Hawaii, the U.S. Territories, Alaska, and Washington, Oregon, and California should stay calm, experts say. Those contacted by Medpage Today (a sister company of Everyday Health) for the most part agreed that while radioactive particles will eventually reach the United States, the levels will be too low to impact people’s health.

“You have to consider a number of factors,” according to Tom Hei, PhD, Associate Director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, in an interview with Everyday Health. “How much radiation is being released into the atmosphere, the direction of the wind current, which compounds are being released, and their half-life — the amount of time it takes them to decay. From what we’ve heard so far, the radioactivity detected [in Japan] has been minimal.”

That’s because, thankfully, the release of radioactive particles seems to be confined to containment structures within the Japanese plant.

To further put things in perspective, keep in mind that when the United States tested nuclear and hydrogen bombs in the Pacific Ocean and dropped atomic bombs in Japan during World War II, they released “far more radiation than these [Japanese] power plants would ever come close to releasing, and it all dissipated in the atmosphere, at least from the standpoint of any health implications in the U.S,” said James Thrall, MD, radiologist-in-chief at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and president of the American College of Radiology, in an interview with MedPage Today.

2. Are there any long-term risks from the radiation leakage?

While acute radiation sickness is currently not a threat to people other than Fukushima workers or those who live in close proximity to the plant, the radiation leakage may have long-term health implications. After a large leak, about 75 percent of the radiation eventually winds up in the ground and water supply nearby, which means it can contaminate vegetation, livestock, and cow’s milk, says Leslie M. Beitsch, MD, director of the Center for Medicine and Public Health at Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee. As people ingest contaminated food and water, their long-term risk for thyroid and other cancers, such as leukemia, increases. Thyroid cancercan take 8 to 12 years to develop after radiation exposure, according to the American Thyroid Association; leukemia can strike within a few years, according to the American Cancer Society.

The remaining 25 percent of the leaked radiation can stay in the atmosphere for extended periods of time, depending on particle size. “If that happens, it does become a global concern, because once these particles reach the upper atmosphere, they can disseminate everywhere,” says Dr. Beitsch. “It’s a potential risk, but a small one at this point.”

However, the radioactive particles would be so widely dispersed that the risk of exposure to any one person is extremely minor, Beitsch adds.

3. Who’s most at risk from radiation exposure?

Fetuses, infants, and small children face the greatest potential harm from radiation. That’s because radiation causes damage by mutating DNA in cells, which can lead to cancer. Because young children’s cells divide at a much faster rate than those of adults, they face potentially more serious long-term health issues, including neurological problems as well as cancer.