With fears mounting about the spread of radiation from Japan's damaged nuclear plants, the people at highest risk are the ones trying hardest to contain it.
The New York Times called the skeleton crews of workers and soldiers inside the plants "perhaps Japan's last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe." But those who study radiation treatment and mitigation say there's not much these workers can do to protect themselves. "There are no proven radioprotectants [for workers] at this point," although some are being studied in animals, says David Weinstock, a bone marrow transplant doctor at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Weinstock is part of a group called the Radiation Injury Treatment Network (RITN).
Although widely talked about, potassium iodide pills are most useful for children and nursing mothers trying to prevent the intake of radioactive iodine, which is most often taken up when drinking contaminated milk or eating dairy products. That's what happened after Chernobyl. An intravenous drug, amifostine, could theoretically help, says Nelson Chao, also a member of RITN and the head of the division of cellular therapy and bone marrow transplants at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. It was developed to protect cancer patients during radiation treatment and is now rarely used. But Chao says, "There isn't any data as to how" it might be offered, especially because it can't be taken by mouth.
The best shield is minimizing the dose of radiation and limiting the time exposed as much as possible. Wearing protective clothing and masks or respirators, as the Japanese workers are doing, can help them avoid particulate matter or radioactive dust, says Norman Kleiman, a radiobiologist who studies radiation exposure at Columbia University.
But the gear required to really keep radiation at bay isn't practical. "You literally have to be wearing head-to-toe lead to prevent exposure, and that's simply not feasible," says Weinstock.