The Japanese Red Cross Society has established a guideline for medical workers that sets an accumulated radiation dose limit of 1 millisievert for relief activities, although experts have said the ceiling is too low to allow workers to provide ample assistance to disaster victims.
"Radiation doses above 1 millisievert have no health effects," said Yasushi Asari, a professor of emergency medical care at Hirosaki University. "There is no need for medical workers to use that threshold."
Masahito Yamazawa, director-general of the Red Cross nuclear disaster preparedness task force, said during in-house discussions there were arguments for and against the 1-millisievert threshold. But the Red Cross determined that a 1-millisievert limit would still allow its workers to engage in relief activities in zones with high radiation levels because each relief mission usually lasts only up to a week, Yamazawa said.
One millisievert is the legal annual dose limit for members of the public during normal times.
Yamazawa added that allowances were also made for the fact that its medical relief squads include clerical workers.
"We have created the guideline out of a positive desire to help victims during a nuclear disaster," Yamazawa said. "We will use it as a platform for further improvements if the need arises."
Providing relief to disaster victims is one of the legally defined duties of the Japanese Red Cross Society. It has organized more than 500 relief squads across Japan, each squad comprising one medical practitioner, three nurses, one driver and one clerical worker.
Japanese Red Cross relief units fulfilled a total of 900 missions in communities ravaged by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. However, initially they were unprepared for a nuclear disaster, and that created a vacuum of relief squads in Fukushima Prefecture during the early stages of the crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
Red Cross officials said they learned from that experience and decided to create the new guideline for nuclear disaster relief activities.
The guideline says relief squad members should carry dosimeters and iodine tablets at all times, and retreat to safety whenever they are in danger of being exposed to more than 1 millisievert in accumulated radiation. It also says relief workers should keep clear of zones that are off-limits to residents.
Shigenobu Nagataki, professor emeritus of radiology at Nagasaki University, said the new Red Cross' ceiling is too low and could compromise relief activities.
"It is the mission of medical workers to help those who are injured or ill. They should not be allowed to leave assistance for patients in no-entry zones to the Self-Defense Forces, police and firefighters alone," said Nagataki, who serves on an expert panel that advises the prime minister's office on nuclear disasters. "The 1-millisievert annual dose limit for members of the public at normal times is too low to be used in disaster relief activities."
Nagataki and other radiation experts are concerned that the Red Cross guideline could set an example for Japan's 1,150 health ministry-certified disaster medical assistance teams and other similar squads.
"If everyone follows the Red Cross standard, that could create confusion in evacuation processes for patients and elderly citizens in off-limit zones," Nagataki said. "That could cause a repeat of what happened in Fukushima."
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