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Monday 24th October 2016

Japan nuclear accident effects unknown

22nd November 2011

Health researchers may never know whether or not the nuclear disaster in Japan, which happened last spring, leads to people developing cancer, experts say.


Edwin Lyman, a physicist and senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he felt there were some difficult choices ahead regarding decontamination, and that the issue of cancer failing to show in population studies was not in itself meaningful.

He said such absences did not mean there had been no effect, nor that no one had got cancer, and that a prediction that there would be thousands of cancer deaths as a result of Fukushima radiation was not out of the question.

Since our understanding of cancer is so limited, it is often hard for scientists to understand why people develop the disease.

Fred Mettler, a radiologist who studied health issues arising from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, said that ignorance of the disease was linked to the fact that cancer was one of the top killers in industrialised nations.

He said that there was a high statistical probability that if someone lived long enough, they would die of cancer.

On average, every human being has about a 40% risk of getting cancer at some point.

Japanese authorities have said that Japan's earthquake-stricken plant let less radiation into the atmosphere than the Chernobyl accident in the 1980s.

However, a recent study suggested that the plant's cesium-137 emissions were as much as twice what the government had calculated.

The Japanese government wants to study the effects of long-term radiation exposure over the next 30 years.

Seiji Yasumura of the state-run Fukushima Medical University, who will assist a new long-term survey for two million residents of the Fukushima prefecture, said he believed that levels of radiation exposure were too low to have a noticeable effect on people.

As yet, no one from the area has died or become ill, and workers who are involved in shutting down the plant have not complained of any health effects.

But many consumers are worried about food safety, and the Japanese Cabinet has already endorsed a plan to halve contamination levels within the next two years.

Mushrooms harvested near Fukushima are frequently found to be contaminated with high levels of radiation.

Fruit, vegetables, grains, milk, and fish found to be above the current government limits for radioactive elements have been banned from sale. But still, many people do not trust the government.

People have taken to measuring radiation levels themselves, and the demand for Geiger counters means that any citizen can rent one of the devices at DVD shops or drug stores in Fukushima.

Online retailers specialising in Geiger counters have also appeared, and people as far from the disaster as Tokyo can be seen carrying Geiger counters to measure radiation levels in their area.

Parents are particularly keen to measure radiation levels near schools and kindergartens, while others have formed citizen groups to test radiation levels in vegetables, milk, and other foods.

Chieko Shiina, who has turned to an immune-boosting traditional Japanese diet, said she tries what she believes is the best approach, because she does not trust the government.

She said she knows levels of radiation will continue to affect citizens, and that she would like to leave Fukushima, except that she has nowhere else to go.

Yuka Saito, a mother of four who lives in a Fukushima neighbourhood where the evacuation order was recently lifted, said that people in Fukushima were exposed to more radiation than anyone else outside the prefecture.

She tells her children to wear medical masks, avoids drinking tap water, and bans them from playing outside.

Michiaki Kai, a professor of environmental health at Oita University of Nursing and Health Sciences, said nobody in Fukushima except for some plant workers had been exposed to harmful levels of radiation, according to test results seen by him.

Nobody yet knows whether low doses of radiation produce cancers, since human cancer rates are already so high.

Eisuke Matsui, a lung cancer specialist and a former associate professor at Gifu University School of Medicine, was critical of some attempts to play down the effects of radiation, since there were other radiation-induced health risks like diabetes, cataracts and heart problems, which had been hinted at by some studies of Chernobyl.

He said that, if thyroid cancer is virtually the only abnormality on which the government studies were focusing, there is a big question mark over the reliability of the 30-year survey.

Yasumura said that the main purpose of the recent study was to relieve people's radiation fears.

According to Japanese officials, excessive fear of radiation causes mental health issues, a potentially bigger threat to public health than increased cases of cancer.

Matsui said he believed that the health survey should not begin with a goal already in mind. He said the surveys should sample hair, clipped nails, and baby teeth for levels of radiation exposure.


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