U.S. Unprepared for Major Radiation Emergency: Survey

Lack of comprehensive response plans puts public health at risk in many states, experts say

TUESDAY, March 15 (HealthDay News) -- Most U.S. states are poorly prepared to deal with a major nuclear plant crisis such as the one now unfolding in Japan, suggests a survey of state health departments.

The Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists said that "38 (76 percent) of state health departments responded to the [2010] survey, including 26 of the 31 states with nuclear power plants."

The findings were published online March 14 in a special supplemental issue of the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.

"Specific strengths noted at the state level included that the majority of states had a written radiation response plan and most states include a detailed section for communication issues during a radiation emergency," the researchers wrote in their report.

However, most states that responded to the survey have completed little or no planning for public health surveillance to assess a major radiation emergency's effect on human health, Sharon M. Watkins, of the division of environmental health at the Florida Department of Health, and colleagues noted.

"Few reported having sufficient resources to do public health surveillance, radiation exposure assessment, laboratory functions and other capabilities," the researchers added.

"The results of this assessment indicate that in many measures of public health capacity and capability, the nation remains poorly prepared to respond adequately to a major radiation emergency incident," the team wrote.

"The most fundamental step of preparedness, development of response plans [outside of response plans for nuclear power plant emergencies], was not reported as occurring in 45 percent of states," Watkins and colleagues stated.

"Without a comprehensive plan, states in which a radiation emergency occurs are likely to mount inefficient, ineffective, inappropriate or tardy responses that could result in [preventable] loss of life. With nearly half of the responding states not having a response plan, a large portion of the U.S. population is at increased risk should a radiological event occur within the country's borders," the authors concluded.

The study authors stressed that "additional training and resources are needed to ensure adequate levels of preparedness" at the state and federal levels.

More information

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains the health effects of radiation.

Robert Preidt SOURCE: Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, news release, March 14, 2011

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