Crisis mode: UNC experts on Japan, future disasters

As Japan struggles in the wake of the recent massive earthquake and tsunami, the scale and extent of the challenges that emerge after natural disasters is all too obvious.

UNC researchers are closely following events, watching for opportunities to help and redoubling existing efforts to find ways to avert or minimize deaths and damage from similar future events, no matter where they occur.

Radiation health risks, short and long term

The threat of a potential nuclear disaster is at the forefront of David Richardson’s mind. An associate professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Richardson’s research focuses on the health of nuclear workers.

He is watching closely as events unfold at the Fukushima nuclear power plants, which were damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. There, emergency crews struggle to contain radiation leaks and avoid reactor meltdowns.

The skeleton crew of workers – dubbed the “Fukushima 50” – are true heroes, he says. Team members face radiation levels that exceed the dose a typical nuclear worker would receive over an entire career.

But it’s not just the Fukushima 50 whose well-being and lives are at stake. Richardson says when the situation is brought under control, it will be important to determine whether people who live near the plant – and further afield – also face potential health risks, such as radiation-induced cancer.

“We’ll have to understand how much radioactive material was lost and where it went. So there has to be an inventory … and an environmental assessment of where the contamination has gone,” he says.

He also believes the U.S. can learn lessons from the crisis, such as the potential danger posed by storing spent fuel rods in cooling ponds, a practice also employed in this country.

Can earthquakes trigger volcanoes?

Seismologist Jonathan Lees began following developments almost immediately after the quake hit. A geological sciences professor, Lees has more than a just a professional interest in events in Japan: he worked in Sendai in spring 2009 and has collaborated with researchers at Japan’s National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention for more than 20 years.

He is particularly keen to find out if the earthquake triggered any increase in seismic activity on Japan’s numerous volcanoes.

“We haven’t done all the research, but there are situations where we’ve had big earthquakes and volcanic eruptions afterwards,” he says. “Mt Fuji is the most famous volcano in Japan and we believe that it’s ready for an eruption at this time, even before this event.

“Millions of people live in the vicinity of Mt Fuji … it’s just west of Tokyo … so if there was a disaster there, it would just magnify the suffering of Japanese, because people are now escaping from the east coast towards the west and the south. If we had a volcanic disaster now, that would just be completely chaotic.”

Protection in a pill?

Protecting people from the harrowing effects of radiation poisoning is a challenge that Ned Sharpless is trying to tackle – and one of his recent discoveries might offer a viable safeguard.

Sharpless, a professor in the School of Medicine and a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, recently found a drug that can mitigate the effects of radiation, even if it’s not taken until up to 20 hours after exposure.

So far, the compound has only been tested in mice. And while he has co-founded a company, G-Zero Therapeutics, to develop a safe, viable product for general use, it will probably take at least five years, Sharpless says. But preliminary results are encouraging.

“If you don’t give a test subject the drug, it dies of radiation sickness,” he says. “If you give it the drug, it lives; it has nearly complete protection. You never ever get an experiment like this. It worked the first time and it’s worked every time since. It always works.”

Read more about other UNC researchers, including experts in mental trauma and hazard mitigation.