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Chernobyl & Hiroshima: Lessons From Previous Nuclear Moments in History; Elizabeth Taylor's Lasting Legacy as Pioneer for AIDS Research; Keeping Kids Safe During Travel

Aired March 26, 2011 - 07:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hi there. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. And welcome to the show.

You know, with fear growing in Japan, we decided to do something different on SGMD. We want to take a look back at Chernobyl, 25 years after the first nuclear accident in history. What it's like now was really an eye opener and could offer some valuable lessons.

Also, Elizabeth Taylor has died -- you've heard that by now. But among the many things she did in her remarkable life would be a pioneer in the world of AIDS. We're going to take a look at that and remember.

Plus, there are some new guidelines on car seats that I found really fascinating. All parents are going to need to pay attention to this. The old rules for strapping in the smallest babies, it could be dangerous. I'll show you the right way to do it.

Let's get started.


GUPTA: First off, though, the nuclear scare in Japan where workers do not yet have full control over the damaged reactors. Now, in Tokyo, earlier in the week, there was a run on bottled water after these tests found radioactive iodine in tap water at a higher level that was known to be safe for infants. Later on, the level did go back down.

But you might wonder about radiation in the United States. EPA monitors all along the West Coast, as you can see here, Colorado and Hawaii, they have been picking up traces of radiation from Japan.

But the question a lot of people are asking, not only in those states, but all around the country, is how important is that. Well, not very. The levels right now are so low they won't have any effect on human health here in the States. That's important to remember.

And, you know, beyond all this, there's something else that's getting lost -- half a million people out of their homes in Japan, more than 27,000 people killed or missing. In many places, there's a shortages of basic supplies like food and blankets. That's the important stuff.

You want to help? You can go to

In other news, an optimistic picture of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from a would-be assassin's bullet. Now, we heard from her husband, Mark Kelly, he's an astronaut who's getting ready to go into space later on this month.


MARK KELLY, HUSBAND OF GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: She's improving every day, and in the realm of brain injuries, that is very significant and pretty rare. She's starting to walk, talk more, more every day. And she's starting to process some of the tragedy that we all went through in January. She's going through that as we speak.


GUPTA: Now, Kelly says he hopes she's going to be well enough to attend the space shuttle launch in three weeks. Good luck to both of you.

Also this week, the world lost one of its most famous faces and also an unlikely pioneer in the HIV/AIDS community. Maybe you didn't know this, but Elizabeth Taylor died of congestive heart failure, but it's her work on HIV/AIDS over the last quarter century that in many ways came to define her almost as much as the glamorous spell she cast on screen.


GUPTA (voice-over): She was a woman of talent, beauty and a generous soul. So, in 1985 when Elizabeth Taylor learned her beloved friend, the actor Rock Hudson, had died of a little-known disease called AIDS, Taylor took notice and then took action.

She began to speak out, talking about a disease that most people were petrified of.

MARK ISHAUG, AIDS UNITED: When everyone was scared to death of HIV and AIDS, didn't want to talk about it -- huge denial, huge stigma, people sticking their head in the sands -- Liz Taylor did just the opposite.

GUPTA: Taylor pushed for more funding for HIV/AIDS research. She asked that people show more compassion and understanding for people who were sick. Her commitment made her the most important AIDS activist in Hollywood.

LARRY KING, "LARRY KING LIVE" HOST: So, you kind of led a movement now, right?

ELIZABETH TAYLOR, ACTRESS: Well, because nobody was doing anything. I thought, well, what the hell am I doing? Nothing. So, I moved and co-founded the first AIDS foundation, amfAR, in America, in the world.

GUPTA: She had the ability to make people listen, and listen they did -- even on Capitol Hill.

ISHAUG: It was that kind of visibility where she used her time and her talent and her celebrity to change the story for all of us.

GUPTA: At the Whitman-Walker clinic in Washington, D.C., their largest center bears her name.

DAVID CHALFANT, WHITMAN-WALKER: She was the founder of amfAR, and that organization has done more for HIV/AIDS research in this country than practically any other.

KENNETH COLE, DESIGNER-CHAIRMAN AMFAR: She had the courage to do this early on, and that's invariably when you make the most impact.

GUPTA: Today, her work is carried on by others, including celebrities. But she was the one who paved the way.

ISHAUG: I think Elizabeth Taylor said about 15 years ago the most important thing she was doing in her life was helping other people and raising money for a cause. And if just everybody else would take that Liz mantra to heart, we could end this epidemic in no time.


GUPTA: Rest in peace, Elizabeth Taylor.

Well, coming up, we're looking at the impact a nuclear disaster can have on people and their families. We're going to do it in sort of interesting way, introduce you to a photographer who's built this unique relationship with the people who live around Chernobyl. His photographs are simply stunning. We're going to show them to you.

Also, later in the show, got some new car seat guidelines out there and they're important. We're going to show you what you need to know. This little guy, Mike, is going to help us how to keep your kids safe even as though grow bigger and taller.

Stay tuned to SGMD.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD.

You know, we had a birthday this week. It's been one year since President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That's health care law.

The question a lot of people asking: how's it going?

Well, a couple of numbers we wanted to share with you: 3.4 million people under the age of 26 can now go on their parents' health insurance. Four million seniors have saved money on prescription drugs usually amounting to a few hundred dollars.

But other things are not going as well, like a plan to make it easier for chronically sick people to find insurance. It's still expensive and in order to qualify you have to be uninsured for at least six months. That's a tough thing for people who have preexisting diseases. As of last month, only 12,347 people have signed up.

Now, to be fair, the biggest changes don't kick in until 2014. In the meantime, more than two dozen states have filed suit to try and stop the law altogether. There are rulings for and against it as things stand now. It looks like all of this is likely to end up in the Supreme Court.

You know, we're still trying to understand the implications of the crisis at the nuclear plant in Japan. Everyone's looking for some point of reference. Well, 32 years ago this week, there was Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, a nuclear plant experienced a partial meltdown.

What was the health impact? The only long-term study with 20 years of data now, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found only a slight increase in risk for one type of cancer, leukemia. And that only among men who got the highest dose of radiation.

Then, of course, there's Chernobyl. In 1986, there was a massive explosion at the old reactor in the Soviet Union. The nearby city became an essential ghost town and there was cancer, mostly thyroid cancer and in children.

Now, the World Health Organization blames the accident for about 4,000 deaths, although other researchers say the number could be even higher.

Photographer Donald Weber has a unique view of this. He's been in Chernobyl more than 20 times starting in 2004 and he joins me now from Toronto, Canada.

Thanks for joining us.

DONALD WEBER, PHOTOGRAPHER: Thanks for having me, Dr. Gupta.

GUPTA: What prompted you to go to Chernobyl the first time you went?

WEBER: Well, I guess you could say I'm a child of the '80s and when I was 12 years old, I was stricken with pneumonia and was stuck in my bed for three months during the spring of 1986. And I remember in early May listening to the radio and this disaster of Chernobyl was sort of looming.

And, at that time, of course, you know, it was this fear of the Cold War and that we were going to be annihilated by nuclear weapons. And, you know, as a child, I honestly believed that.

GUPTA: Right.

WEBER: And ever since that time I had always kind of wanted to visit what was this Chernobyl and what is this place called the Soviet Union. And, you know, it took me 20-some-odd years to finally make it there, but eventually I did.

GUPTA: What did you expect to see?

WEBER: When I first went I think, I probably imagined what we all imagine, that this was some kind of a circus or some kind of terror zone with three-headed monsters rumbling around the forest. But when I got there I was pleasantly surprised and shocked and, you know, blue sky, a very, very beautiful place and quiet and tranquil, and people living their lives day to day, working out in the farms, working inside, going to work, raising children, getting married, dying, everything that we would do here they would do in Ukraine, that was still happening in Chernobyl. And that to me was the biggest surprise.

GUPTA: One of the -- one of the concerns, obviously, after disaster like this is that the area is essentially contaminated, that it's dirty, that you're going to get radioactivity there, not just for weeks and months but for decades even to come. Was that true in Chernobyl?

WEBER: Well, I think had the concern for contamination is still very much there, but, you know, to give a little bit of quick background history on the region of Chernobyl, it's essentially an agricultural zone and -- which means that, you know, it's not necessarily poverty-stricken but it is definitely a very poor zone. So, a lot of these people didn't have any where else to go.

And a lot of these people in the village, you know, you're born in this village, you're raised in this village and you want to die in that village. So, you have nowhere else to go, regardless of what's poisoning you.

GUPTA: Even now, I've just returned from Japan, as you know, and there's a lot of misinformation out there and understandably a lot of anxiety. Do people over there, because they lived through this, do they -- do they understand how bad it was or maybe how bad it really wasn't in the long run?

WEBER: If you're walking down the street, you just said Chernobyl to somebody, they're going to shake. And that's certainly very true in Ukraine. I would tell my Ukrainian friends, I'm going to go up to Chernobyl. In fact, my very first time, it took me about four hours to finally find a driver that was willing to go up there. Everybody else said, you know, you're crazy, you're going to die, you're going to get cancer. I'm not going up there.

So, I think there are still a lot of misconceptions. And now, the thing with the area of Chernobyl, it was actually a marsh area. And as you know, a marsh works as a very natural filter. And it's -- you know, at first, they were saying the half life of the radiation was going to be centuries but in reality, it's just taken a few decades to not completely eradicate it, because it still is a very contaminated place, but, you know, these marshes, this natural filtration of the marsh has actually cut down on the amount of radiation that is still within the zone. GUPTA: You had some very memorable moments, and like I say, we looked at some of your photographs. Can you share a couple of those with us?

WEBER: Yes. They -- I say the one that kind of stands out for me the most is on my very first visit there in 2005, we just were driving around and we stopped in a village on the edge of the exclusion zone and we met a woman and her husband. He was a coal miner. He had since retired for a few years. They come from the east of Ukraine in a very heavy industrial and coal mining area of Ukraine and they had actually chosen to come to Chernobyl to die essentially. And he told me, he says, Don, you know, where I come from, the snow is black. But at least here, the snow is white. He goes, when I walk outside every morning, I look up, the sky is blue, and the white is snow -- and the snow is white, you know?

And to me, that was -- it was kind of a troubling statement because it's this kind of -- this power that Chernobyl has is that it is a very deadly zone place to be, but you can't see what's going to kill you. And a lot of people would rather choose beauty over, you know, something that's not beautiful like a coal mine. So, that to me -- that really is what powered me to want to go back.

GUPTA: Really quickly, Don, I know you're going to Japan. When you tell your friends or family that you're going, what do they say to you? And, quickly, what do you say back to them?

WEBER: I've learned to understand what radiation is, and how it can kill you, and I don't take stupid chances, you know? It's been six years in the making of this Chernobyl work, and I think the reason it's been so long is because I'm dedicated to it.

And I understand, you know, it's not just about the radioactive plume that comes out of the factory, out of Fukushima, or out of Chernobyl, but I'm more interested in the psychological and the social catastrophe that happens when people are forced to leave their homes, when cities are abandoned, when infrastructure is denied, and you're sort of left on your own. To me, those are sort of the more interesting aspects of the story.

GUPTA: Right.

WEBER: And it's also an area, I guess, that is not so contaminated as the factory itself.

GUPTA: Well, I wish you safe travels, Donald. Thanks so much for sharing some of those pictures and your stories with us. And, obviously, we'll continue to report on this. Safe travels. Thank you.

WEBER: Thanks for having me. Thanks.

GUPTA: Just extraordinary photographs and a lot of lessons learned this as well.

And, next, we're going to stay on them. You're going to find a woman who was born in Hiroshima. She lost relatives there, and found herself determined to use radiation as a force for good. You're not going to believe where her journey has taken her.

Stay tuned to SGMD.


GUPTA: Welcome back to SGMD.

You know, in Japan, there's a word for people who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They called them hibakusha. Literally translated, that means explosion affected people.

Now, Dr. Ritsuko Komaki was just a baby when Hiroshima was destroyed. She lived about an hour away. At age 11, after losing a friend to leukemia, she made a vow to try to understand the use of radiation as a force for good.

Take a look at where that journey led.


GUPTA (voice-over): Dr. Ritsuko Komaki was 2 years old when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima more than 65 years ago. Her family lost six relatives. Her grandmother had radiation sickness.

DR. RITSUKO KOMAKI, ANDERSON CANCER CENTER: Her hair fell out and she had the nose bleeding and the diarrhea.

GUPTA: At that time, no one in Hiroshima understood how dangerous radiation could be. Little Ritsuko grew up playing among the radioactive ruins.

KOMAKI: I was just too small to know how much radioactive material is staying on the ground.

GUPTA: When she was 11, Komaki she lost a friend to leukemia and she began to suspect that the bomb had long-lasting invisible effects on her city. She wanted to learn more about what killed her friend and how to stop it. Eventually, she went to medical school and that's when she learned about radiation.

KOMAKI: I volunteered during summertime to check all those people who were exposed to the atomic bomb.

GUPTA: Later in her medical training, Dr. Komaki learned that radiation could actually save lives, not just ruin them.

KOMAKI: When I saw these patients who are cured by radiation treatment, you know, I saw the light and I said, "Oh, my goodness, this is incredible."

GUPTA: As a cancer specialist, she uses radiation to treat patients and educates people about how radiation can be a force for good, both in the United States and in her native Japan, where most cancer patients forgo this type of treatment because they fear radiation so much. For nearly a decade, Komaki has made it her mission to change that.

KOMAKI: I really truly hope, you know, that people -- they don't get any wrong idea, you know, this accident of the nuclear plants. It's not like regular radiation treatment.

GUPTA: For now, she's back in the United States treating patients but hopes to head to Japan again soon, to help her homeland, and also to continue to spread her message that radiation doesn't always have to be a dirty word.


GUPTA: You know, there's no question there's still a lot of anxiety about what's happening in Japan, but hopefully, messages like that will start to offer reassurance as well.

Now, you may be confused by the guidelines for putting kids in car seats. Obviously, it's something parents do every single day. But what exactly do you need to know to keep your kids as safe as possible? We're going to go -- we're going to show you exactly what to do. That's next.


GUPTA: You know, we're back with SGMD.

We've heard a lot about head injuries in football. And this week, the professional football league, the NFL, took a dramatic step to try to make the game safer. There's new rule the league says is going to cut down the number of kickoff returns by half. Because it's those plays, the kickoff plays in particular that are especially dangerous.

So, for now on, the kicker is going to kick the ball off from 35- yard line instead of 30-yard line. And what that's supposed to do is make it more -- less likely, rather, that the other team can actually run the ball back. It's an interesting change in rules.

And joining me to talk more about it from New York is Mark Mravic. He's from "Sports Illustrated." He oversees their NFL coverage.

Thanks so much for joining us.

You know, there wasn't hard data that we could find specifically on how many injuries are specifically, you know, caused on the kickoff returns. But, you know, it is one of the more spectacular parts of the game, the kickoff return. How much of a difference do -- you know, does the NFL players think this is going to make?

MARK MRAVIC, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Anecdotally, there's just more injuries on these plays, and the league is trying to cut down. I mean, you've got 11 on 11. And unlike a lot of other place in football, these guys are running full speed, every one of them at each other, you know, for the length of the field. Some of the more dramatic injuries, you know, in the past couple of years in the NFL have occurred on these plays.

A couple years ago, a Buffalo Bills player, Kevin Everett --

GUPTA: Yes, sure.

MRAVIC: -- temporarily paralyzed on a kickoff play.

So, you know, these are dangerous plays and the players are faster and bigger and stronger.

GUPTA: I heard as part of these discussions, and correct me if I'm wrong, that they even talked about abolishing kick returns altogether.

MRAVIC: I think that was part of the discussion. I don't think it was -- I think that's a radical change that, you know, most of the owners would not be -- would not be immediately agreeable to. But, on the whole, I think the league saw that this was one of the many steps they can take to sort of reduce the violence on the field.

GUPTA: We hope to you have back to talk about that because this is something we're certainly going to stay on top of.

Thanks so much, Mark Mravic, from "Sports Illustrated."

And we are going to have much more on the safety on football in the weeks ahead. This is a topic I'm very serious about. In fact, I'm working on one story in particular about families who watch their loved ones develop a form of dementia and what they're going through as a result. You're not going to want to miss this. We're going to stay with that story.

There's another story that really got my attention, primarily, I'll tell you, as a dad. It's about kids in car seats. I was a bit surprised by this. But they say when a child turns one or reaches 20 pounds, turn the car seat to face the front. That's how things sort of stand right now.

But you might not know that children under 2 years old who ride facing forward are five times more likely to die or to be severely injured in a car crash. So, now, there's new guidelines telling parents to wait until age 2 or until their child outgrows the car seat.


GUPTA: This is Mikey. He's 23 months. He's in a rear-facing car seat and this is exactly what the American Academy of Pediatrics says should be happening, they should say in a rear-facing car seat until they're 2 years old at least or exceed those requirements.

Now, you know, this is based on a lot of data actually showing that car seats that are facing rear are much safer. Parents are better than ever about keeping their kids in car seats. And, second of all, the number of deaths in car accidents of children have gone down as a result.

What they're saying, though, is if you look at a rear-facing car seat, if there is an accident, the force is sort of distributed across the body as opposed to just on the head here. And that's what they say makes all the difference.

So, Mikey should be in a rear-facing car seat. Children up until 4'9" tall should be in a booster seat and they say children 13 and under should always sit in the rear seat.

Now, kids aren't always going to be happy about this. You can see this here, possibly. But they say this is going to be much safer and they say if a child has actually started sitting in a front seat but it doesn't meet the guidelines yet, they should actually switch back.

And one of the things you may notice here is the legs may be a little squished, especially if the child is tall. You can't buy bigger rear-facing car seats. They say typically if a child is not switched already to a front-facing car seat, they're really not going to be too bothered by it.


GUPTA: Now, one thing I do want to make clear: if a child can still fit properly, it's best to stay rear-facing even after age 2. That's a lot safer.

Well, that does it for SGMD this week. Thanks so much for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

More news on CNN starts right now.