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Fukushima radiation alarms doctors
Japanese doctors warn of public health problems caused by Fukushima radiation.
Last Modified: 18 Aug 2011 14:09
Residents of Ohkuma-cho attend a memorial service for the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami on 24 July 2011 in Ohkuma-cho, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, 20 km from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant [EPA]

Scientists and doctors are calling for a new national policy in Japan that mandates the testing of food, soil, water, and the air for radioactivity still being emitted from Fukushima's heavily damaged Daiichi nuclear power plant.

"How much radioactive materials have been released from the plant?" asked Dr Tatsuhiko Kodama, a professor at the Research Centre for Advanced Science and Technology and Director of the University of Tokyo's Radioisotope Centre, in a July 27 speech to the Committee of Health, Labour and Welfare at Japan's House of Representatives.

"The government and TEPCO have not reported the total amount of the released radioactivity yet," said Kodama, who believes things are far worse than even the recent detection of extremely high radiation levels at the plant.

There is widespread concern in Japan about a general lack of government monitoring for radiation, which has caused people to begin their own independent monitoring, which are also finding disturbingly high levels of radiation.

Kodama's centre, using 27 facilities to measure radiation across the country, has been closely monitoring the situation at Fukushima - and their findings are alarming.

According to Dr Kodama, the total amount of radiation released over a period of more than five months from the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster is the equivalent to more than 29 "Hiroshima-type atomic bombs" and the amount of uranium released "is equivalent to 20" Hiroshima bombs.

Kodama, along with other scientists, is concerned about the ongoing crisis resulting from the Fukushima situation, as well as what he believes to be inadequate government reaction, and believes the government needs to begin a large-scale response in order to begin decontaminating affected areas.

Distrust of the Japanese government's response to the nuclear disaster is now common among people living in the effected prefectures, and people are concerned about their health.

Recent readings taken at the plant are alarming.

When on August 2nd readings of 10,000 millisieverts (10 sieverts) of radioactivity per hour were detected at the plant, Japan's science ministry said that level of dose is fatal to humans, and is enough radiation to kill a person within one to two weeks after the exposure.

10,000 millisieverts (mSv) is the equivalent of approximately 100,000 chest x-rays.

It is an amount 250 per cent higher than levels recorded at the plant in March after it was heavily damaged by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami.

The operator of Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), that took the reading, used equipment to measure radiation from a distance, and was unable to ascertain the exact level because the device's maximum reading is only 10,000 mSv.

TEPCO also detected 1,000 millisieverts (mSv) per hour in debris outside the plant, as well as finding 4,000 mSv per hour inside one of the reactor buildings.

The Fukushima disaster has been rated as a "level seven" on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). This level, the highest, is the same as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and is defined by the scale as: "[A] major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures."

The Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters are the only nuclear accidents to have been rated level seven on the scale, which is intended to be logarithmic, similar to the scale used to describe the comparative magnitude of earthquakes. Each increasing level represents an accident approximately ten times more severe than the previous level.

Doctors in Japan are already treating patients suffering health effects they attribute to radiation from the ongoing nuclear disaster.

"We have begun to see increased nosebleeds, stubborn cases of diarrhoea, and flu-like symptoms in children," Dr Yuko Yanagisawa, a physician at Funabashi Futawa Hospital in Chiba Prefecture, told Al Jazeera.

She attributes the symptoms to radiation exposure, and added: "We are encountering new situations we cannot explain with the body of knowledge we have relied upon up until now."

"The situation at the Daiichi Nuclear facility in Fukushima has not yet been fully stabilised, and we can't yet see an end in sight," Yanagisawa said. "Because the nuclear material has not yet been encapsulated, radiation continues to stream into the environment."

Health concerns

Al Jazeera's Aela Callan, reporting from Japan's Ibaraki prefecture, said of the recently detected high radiation readings: "It is now looking more likely that this area has been this radioactive since the earthquake and tsunami, but no one realised until now."

Workers at Fukushima are only allowed to be exposed to 250 mSv of ionising radiation per year.

Junichi Matsumoto, a TEPCO spokesman, said the high dose was discovered in an area that does not hamper recovery efforts at the stricken plant.

Yet radioactive cesium exceeding the government limit was detected in processed tea made in Tochigi City, about 160km from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, according to the Tochigi Prefectural Government, who said radioactive cesium was detected in tea processed from leaves harvested in the city in early July.

The level is more than 3 times the provisional government limit.

Yanagisawa's hospital is located approximately 200km from Fukushima, so the health problems she is seeing that she attributes to radiation exposure causes her to be concerned by what she believes to be a grossly inadequate response from the government.

From her perspective, the only thing the government has done is to, on April 25, raise the acceptable radiation exposure limit for children from 1 mSv/year to 20 mSv/year.

"This has caused controversy, from the medical point of view," Yanagisawa told Al Jazeera. "This is certainly an issue that involves both personal internal exposures as well as low-dose exposures."

Junichi Sato, Greenpeace Japan Executive Director, said: "It is utterly outrageous to raise the exposure levels for children to twenty times the maximum limit for adults."

"The Japanese government cannot simply increase safety limits for the sake of political convenience or to give the impression of normality."

Authoritative current estimates of the health effects of low-dose ionizing radiation are published in the Biological Effects of Ionising Radiation VII (BEIR VII) report from the US National Academy of Sciences.

The report reflects the substantial weight of scientific evidence proving there is no exposure to ionizing radiation that is risk-free.

The BEIR VII estimates that each 1 mSv of radiation is associated with an increased risk of all forms of cancer other than leukemia of about 1-in-10,000; an increased risk of leukemia of about 1-in-100,000; and a 1-in-17,500 increased risk of cancer death.

Dr Helen Caldicott, the founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985, is equally concerned about the health effects from Japan's nuclear disaster.

"Radioactive elements get into the testicles and ovaries, and these cause genetic disease like diabetes, cystic fibrosis, and mental retardation," she told Al Jazeera. "There are 2,600 of these diseases that get into our genes and are passed from generation to generation, forever."

So far, the only cases of acute radiation exposure have involved TEPCO workers at the stricken plant. Lower doses of radiation, particularly for children, are what many in the medical community are most concerned about, according to Dr Yanagisawa.

"Humans are not yet capable of accurately measuring the low dose exposure or internal exposure," she explained, "Arguing 'it is safe because it is not yet scientifically proven [to be unsafe]' would be wrong. That fact is that we are not yet collecting enough information to prove the situations scientifically. If that is the case, we can never say it is safe just by increasing the annual 1mSv level twenty fold."

Her concern is that the new exposure standards by the Japanese government do not take into account differences between adults and children, since children's sensitivity to radiation exposure is several times higher than that of adults.

Al Jazeera contacted Prime Minister Naoto Kan's office for comment on the situation.

Speaking on behalf of the Deputy Cabinet Secretary for Public Relations for the Prime Minister's office, Noriyuki Shikata said that the Japanese government "refers to the ICRP [International Commission on Radiological Protection] recommendation in 2007, which says the reference levels of radiological protection in emergency exposure situations is 20-100 mSv per year. The Government of Japan has set planned evacuation zones and specific spots recommended for evacuation where the radiation levels reach 20 mSv/year, in order to avoid excessive radiation exposure."

The prime minister's office explained that approximately 23bn yen ($300mn) is planned for decontamination efforts, and the government plans to have a decontamination policy "by around the end of August", with a secondary budget of about 97bn yen ($1.26bn) for health management and monitoring operations in the affected areas.

When questioned about the issue of "acute radiation exposure", Shikata pointed to the Japanese government having received a report from TEPCO about six of their workers having been exposed to more than 250 mSv, but did not mention any reports of civilian exposures.

Prime Minister Kan's office told Al Jazeera that, for their ongoing response to the Fukushima crisis, "the government of Japan has conducted all the possible countermeasures such as introduction of automatic dose management by ID codes for all workers and 24 hour allocation of doctors. The government of Japan will continue to tackle the issue of further improving the health management including medium and long term measures".

Shikata did not comment about Kodama's findings.

Kodama, who is also a doctor of internal medicine, has been working on decontamination of radioactive materials at radiation facilities in hospitals of the University of Tokyo for the past several decades.

"We had rain in Tokyo on March 21 and radiation increased to .2 micosieverts/hour and, since then, the level has been continuously high," said Kodama, who added that his reporting of radiation findings to the government has not been met an adequate reaction. "At that time, the chief cabinet secretary, Mr Edano, told the Japanese people that there would be no immediate harm to their health."

Kodama is an expert in internal exposure to radiation, and is concerned that the government has not implemented a strong response geared towards measuring radioactivity in food.

"Although three months have passed since the accident already, why have even such simple things have not been done yet?" he said. "I get very angry and fly into a rage."

According to Kodama, the major problem caused by internal radiation exposure is the generation of cancer cells as  the radiation causes unnatural cellular mutation.

"Radiation has a high risk to embryos in pregnant women, juveniles, and highly proliferative cells of people of growing ages. Even for adults, highly proliferative cells, such as hairs, blood, and intestinal epithelium cells, are sensitive to radiation."

'Children are at greater risk'

Early on in the disaster, Dr Makoto Kondo of the department of radiology of Keio University's School of Medicine warned of "a large difference in radiation effects on adults compared to children".

Kondo explained the chances of children developing cancer from radiation exposure was many times higher than adults.

"Children's bodies are underdeveloped and easily affected by radiation, which could cause cancer or slow body development. It can also affect their brain development," he said.

Yanagisawa assumes that the Japanese government's evacuation standards, as well as their raising the permissible exposure limit to 20mSv "can cause hazards to children's health," and therefore "children are at a greater risk".

Nishio Masamichi, director of Japan's Hakkaido Cancer Centre and a radiation treatment specialist, published an article on July 27 titled: "The Problem of Radiation Exposure Countermeasures for the Fukushima Nuclear Accident: Concerns for the Present Situation".

In the report, Masamichi said that such a dramatic increase in permitted radiation exposure was akin to "taking the lives of the people lightly". He believes that 20mSv is too high, especially for children who are far more susceptible to radiation.

"No level of radiation is acceptable, for children or anyone else," Caldicott told Al Jazeera. "Children are ten to 20 times more sensitive than adults. They must not be exposed to radiation of any level. At all."

In early July, officials with the Japanese Nuclear Safety Commission announced that approximately 45 per cent of children in the Fukushima region had experienced thyroid exposure to radiation, according to a survey carried out in late March. The commission has not carried out any surveys since then.

"Now the Japanese government is underestimating the effects of low dosage and/or internal exposures and not raising the evacuation level even to the same level adopted in Chernobyl," Yanagisawa said. "People's lives are at stake, especially the lives of children, and it is obvious that the government is not placing top priority on the people's lives in their measures."

Caldicott feels the lack of a stronger response to safeguard the health of people in areas where radiation is found is "reprehensible".

"Millions of people need to be evacuated from those high radiation zones, especially the children."

Dr Yanagisawa is concerned about what she calls "late onset disorders" from radiation exposure resulting from the Fukushima disaster, as well as increasing cases of infertility and miscarriages.

"Incidence of cancer will undoubtedly increase," she said. "In the case of children, thyroid cancer and leukemia can start to appear after several years. In the case of adults, the incidence of various types of cancer will increase over the course of several decades."

Yanagisawa said it is "without doubt" that cancer rates among the Fukushima nuclear workers will increase, as will cases of lethargy, atherosclerosis, and other chronic diseases among the general population in the effected areas.

Yanagisawa believes it is time to listen to survivors of the atomic bombings. "To be exposed to radiation, to be told there is no immediate effect, and afterwards to be stricken with cancer - what it is like to suffer this way over a long period of time, only the survivors of the atomic bombings can truly understand," she told Al Jazeera.

Radioactive food and water

An August 1 press release from Japan's MHLW said no radioactive materials have been detected in the tap water of Fukushima prefecture, according to a survey conducted by the Japanese government's Nuclear Emergency Response Headquarters.

The government defines no detection as "no results exceeding the 'Index values for infants (radioactive iodine)'," and says "in case the level of radioactive iodine in tap water exceeds 100 Bq/kg, to refrain from giving infants formula milk dissolved by tap water, having them intake tap water … "

Yet, on June 27, results were published from a study that found 15 residents of Fukushima prefecture had tested positive for radiation in their urine.

Dr Nanao Kamada, professor emeritus of radiation biology at Hiroshima University, has been to Fukushima prefecture twice in order to take internal radiation exposure readings and facilitated the study.

"The risk of internal radiation is more dangerous than external radiation," Dr Kamada told Al Jazeera. "And internal radiation exposure does exist for Fukushima residents."

According to the MHLW, distribution of several food products in Fukushima Prefecture remain restricted. This includes raw milk, vegetables including spinach, kakina, and all other leafy vegetables, including cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and beef.

The distribution of tealeaves remains restricted in several prefectures, including all of Ibaraki, and parts of Tochigi, Gunma, Chiba, Kanagawa Prefectures.

Iwate prefecture suspended all beef exports because of caesium contamination on August 1, making it the fourth prefecture to do so.

Due to caesium contaminated straw, beef exports have been banned in four Japanese prefectures [EPA]

Jyunichi Tokuyama, an expert with the Iwate Prefecture Agricultural and Fisheries Department, told Al Jazeera he did not know how to deal with the crisis. He was surprised because he did not expect radioactive hot spots in his prefecture, 300km from the Fukushima nuclear plant.

"The biggest cause of this contamination is the rice straw being fed to the cows, which was highly radioactive," Tokuyama told Al Jazeera.

Kamada feels the Japanese government is acting too slowly in response to the Fukushima disaster, and that the government needs to check radiation exposure levels "in each town and village" in Fukushima prefecture.

"They have to make a general map of radiation doses," he said. "Then they have to be concerned about human health levels, and radiation exposures to humans. They have to make the exposure dose map of Fukushima prefecture. Fukushima is not enough. Probably there are hot spots outside of Fukushima. So they also need to check ground exposure levels."

Caldicott said people around the world should be concerned about the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Radiation that continues to be released has global consequences.

More than 11,000 tonnes of radioactive water has been released into the ocean from the stricken plant.

Scientists warn that tuna caught off the Pacific coastal prefecture in northern Japan are now at risk of being radioactive [EPA]

"Those radioactive elements bio-concentrate in the algae, then the crustaceans eat that, which are eaten by small then big fish," Caldicott said. "That's why big fish have high concentrations of radioactivity and humans are at the top of the food chain, so we get the most radiation, ultimately."

On August 6, the 66th anniversary of the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said: "Regarding nuclear energy, we will deeply reflect over the myth that nuclear energy is safe. We will thoroughly look into the cause of the [Fukushima] accident, and to secure safety, we'll implement fundamental measures while also decreasing the degree of dependence on nuclear power generation, to aim for a society that does not rely on nuclear power."

But doctors, scientists, agricultural experts, and much of the general public in Japan feel that a much more aggressive response to the nuclear disaster is needed.

Kodama believes the government needs to begin a large-scale response in order to begin decontaminating affected areas. He cited Japan's itai itai disease, when cadmium poisoning from mining resulted in the government eventually having to spend 800 billion yen to decontaminate an area of 1,500 hectares.

"How much cost will be needed if the area is 1,000 times larger?"

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source:
Al Jazeera
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